Book Review : Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen

January 26, 2015 Book review 6 ★★★★

Hands up, I have to admit that I ADORE The Little House on the Prairie- both the books and the TV show.  I read these with my mother and they are the ultimate in comfort books for me.  So as soon as I saw Pioneer Girl, I knew I needed it in my paws!

Book Review : Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh NguyenPioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen
Published by Penguin on February 6th 2014
Genres: Contemporary Women, Cultural Heritage, Literary
Pages: 296
Format: eARC
Source: NetGalley
Buy on Amazon

From an award-winning author, a novel about a Vietnamese American family’s ties to The Little House on the PrairieJobless with a PhD, Lee Lien returns home to her Chicago suburb from grad school, only to find herself contending with issues she’s evaded since college.

But when her brother disappears, he leaves behind an object from their mother’s Vietnam past that stirs up a forgotten childhood dream: a gold-leaf brooch, abandoned by an American reporter in Saigon back in 1965, that might be an heirloom belonging to Laura Ingalls Wilder. As Lee explores the tenuous facts of this connection, she unearths more than expected—a trail of clues and enticements that lead her from the dusty stacks of library archives to hilarious prairie life reenactments and ultimately to San Francisco, where her findings will transform strangers’ lives as well as her own.

A dazzling literary mystery about the true origins of a time-tested classic, Pioneer Girl is also the deeply moving tale of a second-generation Vietnamese daughter, the parents she struggles to honor, the missing brother she is expected to bring home—even as her discoveries yield dramatic insights that will free her to live her own life to its full potential.

First Line of Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen

“In August 1965 a woman named Rose walked into my granfather’s cafe in Saigon.”

My Thoughts on Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen:

There are three things you need to know about this book:

  1. I loved it!
  2. It doesn’t have the innocent, warm feel that Little House gives you
  3. It is fiction

OK, with all that clear, let me tell you a bit more about it.  It features Lee who is second-generation Vietnamese American and the possible connections between her family and Rose Wilder Lane (Laura’s daughter to the uninitiated).  She also illustrates the similarities between the families such as the constant moving around, the ongoing search for a better life and the mother/daughter tensions.

What I adored while reading this was how diverse and authentic it felt.  I was hooked by how displaced Lee felt and how much she just wanted to fit in.  It felt like such a struggle and it really made me think long and hard about how displaced and unsettled it might feel to be a second-generation immigrant.

I also loved how the facts about Little House and the Ingalls history meshed in with the story.  It does read a bit like a memoir as you are mixing in factual history with fictional but it really worked for me.  I was absorbed in the facts and by how Lee set about researching the links.  I have to say she isn’t exactly a squeaky clean character and definitely does some shady things during her research but I loved how passionate she was about it all.

I have already read a lot about Laura Ingalls so nothing in the book came as a shock to me.  It does strongly imply however that Rose had a lot to do with the writing/editing of those books which is something I firmly believe.  If you don’t like or are unaware of that view though, some of the story might dismay you.

The other aspect I love was the rocky relationship that Lee has with her mother and brother.  I can see why she got obsessed with Little House and it’s depictions of the ideal American family.  As this is what she longed to be part of.

Lee is a very unique character and her darker moments shake up the pace of the book.  Her mother was very alien to me and difficult to comprehend but I enjoyed how complex she was.  And you have to love Ong Hai, her peace-making grandfather.   I was also partial to the huge theme of food, yum!  I want Ong Hai to cook for me!

So overall this book is NOTHING like Little House on the Prairie and the reasons I picked it up had nothing to do with how I ultimately enjoyed it.    The huge pluses for me were the character development, the diversity of it and only then The Little House tie-ins.  And I know I want to read more by this author as I loved how she brought this Vietnamese family to life for me.  Not in a superficial way but in a way that helped me understand the culture and consider other perspectives.


Rating Report
Did I feel it?
Overall: four-stars


Who should read Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen?

I’d highly recommend this book to you if you are looking for an authentically diverse main character and a story that makes you think about the challenges of immigration.  If you love Little House, just be aware that this is not similar to that but I still adored the Little House tie-ins.

Thanks to NetGalley and Penguin Books for giving me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest, unbiased review.



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6 Responses to “Book Review : Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen”

    • trish

      If you loved the books, you should go see if you find the TV show. It’s fab, if you like that old fashioned nostalgic family show feel. Which I do. I know you can buy box sets on Amazon. And I think you’d like the book too as the LHOTP tie ins are fun when you know the books well.

    • trish

      I’m exactly the same family secrets and mysteries pull me in every time. I think anyone who love LHOTP books will enjoy this one even though they are nothing alike.

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