Review Blog

Sep 17 2020

The mountains sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

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Oneworld, 2020. ISBN: 9781786079503.
(Age: 14+) Highly recommended. As a young girl in the school taught by her grandmother Dieu Lan, Huong wonders why foreign armies keep invading her country, Vietnam: first the Chinese, the Mongolians, the French, the Japanese and then the American imperialists. As the Vietnam (or American) war continues, it is her grandmother's stories that keep her hope alive. Learning that her grandmother has survived the French occupation, the Japanese invasion, the Great Hunger, and the Land Reform, Huong is determined that she will find safety once again with her parents Ngoc and Hoang, both soldiers in the war against the American enemy and the South Vietnamese.
Readers of this novel will learn through Dieu Lan's stories of the horrific ordeals the people of Vietnam have endured. The chapters alternate between the struggles of Huong and her grandmother during the Vietnam war, and the past stories of Dieu Lan's suffering of mass famine in 1945, the brutality of land dispossession and massacres during the Land Reform movement in the 1950s and then the conflict of the Vietnam War. Dieu Lan was the mother of six children, each of whom she had to find some way of protecting, even if it meant actually abandoning them to ensure their survival away from her. It is a heartrending story. When Dieu Lan retraces her steps to find her children again their outcomes are not always what she would have hoped for.
Each of Huong's relatives is affected by the Vietnam War, through separation from family, to beatings and rape, to Agent Orange poisoning, to traumatic amputation. But somehow, the spirit of Dieu Lan survives and even forges a way towards Buddhist forgiveness, peace and calm. It is a harrowing story, but one of the delights of this novel are the Vietnamese proverbs that Dieu Lan passes on to Huong, "fire proves gold, adversity proves men", "soft and persistent rain penetrates the earth better than a storm", and "only through love can we drive away the darkness of evil from this earth".
Millions of people lost their lives during the Vietnam War. This novel tells the stories of some of them, in the hope to learn from the past and prevent future armed conflict.
Themes: Vietnam War, Famine, Endurance, Survival.
Helen Eddy

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