Blog Tour: Dust Child, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Book Review: Dust Child, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Dust Child, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Historical Fiction: Dust Child, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Blog Tour, May 5, 2023


Dust Child is an absolutely exquisite, breathtaking work. With soaring prose and searing words, author Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai takes the agonies of war and the struggles of those damaged by the war and turns them into a psalm of release.


Reading it, I was reminded of the Bible verse that warns the sins of the fathers will lead to punishment of the children for generations. Without getting into theological weeds, there is a very practical understanding here that people of any faith (or none at all) can understand: Evil changes the world, and its effects cannot be erased in one lifetime.


Dan flew helicopters during the Vietnam War (as we know it in America). While there, he met a bar girl whom he knew as Kim. The two of them began a relationship that ended when Dan returned home to Seattle and to his fiancee, leaving a pregnant Kim behind in Saigon. In 2016, still reeling from the terrors and horrors he saw in the war and ashamed of his cowardice toward Kim, he and his wife Linda go to Vietnam in hopes of finding some healing, some atonement, some restoration. 


Kim, whose real name is Trang, left her home with her sister to earn money in Saigon. Their parents had been swindled of their life’s savings and the debt collectors were gradually taking everything: their home, their livestock, and soon their land. Rather than see their parents ruined, the girls go to Saigon purportedly to take office jobs for an American company. They are instead going to be bar girls, chatting and flirting with GIs for money. Only, chatting and flirting is a prelude to prostitution. Chatting and flirting is not enough, never enough, and soon these naive young women from the country are forced into lives they could not have imagined.


Phong is a “dust child.” His mother was a bar girl. His father was an American GI. He was left at an orphanage as an infant, raised by nuns, and faced prejudice his entire life. His dark skin, curly hair, and unusual height were all indicators of his parentage, indicators which made him the target of those whose experiences with the Americans were almost exclusively negative. Yet Phong never gave up hope of finding his parents, finding his way to America, and discovering his family.


These stories weave back and forth, from the 1970s to the 2010s. Throughout, Nguyen spares no one in her righteous anger, except for the “dust children” who were in impossible situations through no fault of their own. There were no winners in this war. There were millions of victims and for many the war did not stop when the Americans left or when Saigon fell or when the country was unified. Mental and physical traumas do not stop when the truce is signed. Land does not heal when the bombs stop falling. Water is not cleaned by the cessation of violence. Healing of land and spirit, water and body, can begin with the end of hostilities. But some consequences of war will be visited on the children for generations.


Another Bible verse challenges our glib assumptions that we would be different from our fathers. Some argued that they were not responsible for the damage wrought by their ancestors. Again, without going into any theological interpretations, we are all products of our ancestry. I did not fight in Vietnam. My father did not. My grandfather did not. Some of that was luck and being the right age–dad was in the army before the war heated up in the mid 60s and I came of age long after the draft was abolished. But I cannot deny that I am part of a country that bears no small burden from the damage we did in Asia.


Dust Child was an emotional read for me, from an author that pulls no punches. She is beautifully blunt, casting a broad net and capturing the naïve, the corrupt, the violent, the cruel, and the avaricious no matter which part they played in this tragedy. She does not consider anyone innocent; we are all responsible for our own choices. Neither, though, does she condemn anyone. Dan was cruel and cowardly, a liar and a cad. He was also remorseful and heartbroken and finally willing to own up to his mistakes. Trang made choices that wrote tragic chapters in her own life’s story. She was no saint, no angel, but neither was she evil. Both of them were caught in the midst of a war they did not choose and could not avoid, and if their union was doomed and damaging, it was also a brief glimpse of hope and life and love in the midst of chaos and darkness.


Our thanks to Anne Cater for our copy of Dust Child, provided so we could do an honest review of the book. The opinions here are solely those of Scintilla. For other perspectives on this brilliant novel, check out the other bloggers on this tour.

Dust Child, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Book Review: Dust Child, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

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