Wednesday, October 7, 2020

A Bend in the River, by Libby Fischer Hellmann

 The Red Herrings Press, ISBN 9781938733680, October 2020

It's 1968, and Tam and Mai are two teenage girls living in a small village in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. The war is raging, though they are, they think, in an out of the way spot. Their village hasn't been directly affected--yet.

And then it changes. The girls are out gathering fruit, maybe the only two not in the village, when an American unit moves in, and massacres the inhabitants. The girls see everyone they know, including their parents and baby brother, die.

Tam is a little older, a little more possessed of a personality that can make decisions in the face of the tragedy. Once the Americas are safely gone from the village, she steals a sampan, and gets them moving down the river, toward Saigon. They may be able to get jobs there, and survive.
Once they get to Saigon, it's not long before the two sisters separate. Tam is more serious, more interested in the long term; Mai is more self-indulgent, focused on Right Now, and a bit selfish. Tam sees Mai as lazy and self-centered; Mai sees Tam as rigid, demanding, and bossy.

They're both right.

Mai lies about her age to get a job as a bargirl, and Tam, while working in a restaurant, gets recruited into the Viet Cong. Mai learns to speak English, dress attractively but respectably, charm and manage GIs, and eventually to manage her fellow bargirls. She has a child, which plays a big role in breaking through the selfishness of her early teen years.

Tam is sent north for training. She learns to fight, build booby-traps, scavenge inert bombs to make new bombs, leave coded messages. She learns to do serious maintenance on the truck she drives to deliver supplies for the Viet Cong and the NVA.

They each find friendship and love, for a while. They each learn the cruelties and corruptions of the side they've chosen.

They both need to find ways to survive.

We follow them through the agonies of the war, and its end, and getting to America as refugees.

This is a beautifully done depiction of two very real young weomen living through incredible hardships and challenges. It's the Vietnam war, from not an anti-American, but from simply a Vietnamese perspective--the viewpoint of ordinary people trying to survive, not a particular ideological perspective. It's very moving, and I'm finding it staying in my head, actively, even as I've started reading my next book.


I received a free electronic galley from the publisher, and am reviewing it voluntarily.

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