The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

Deep green mountains fade to brilliant yellow and orange to the top and bottom of the cover. Dark branches cross the orange sections, with leaves traced in gold.

by Kristen B.

A highly lyrical novel, The Mountains Sing talks about the price of war and who pays it. At one point, one of the characters muses that if only everyone could spend more time reading books, maybe we would spend less time fighting wars. It seems like a particularly timely sentiment.

Set in Vietnam, The Mountains Sing is told between a grandmother and her granddaughter, with one timeline taking place during the 1950s and the other in the 1970s. Both decades were particularly turbulent ones, covering the rise of the Viet Minh, the Land Reform movement, and the war between north and south that so fatefully embroiled America.

America has repeatedly told the story of its Vietnam War, particularly in films such as Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. Nguyen’s book provides another perspective, almost entirely. A noted author and poet in her homeland, this is her first novel in English. On her website, she explains that the second language allowed her to frame a story that she didn’t necessarily know how to tell in her native tongue.

Tran Dieu Lan was born to a well-to-do farming family that owned their land and employed several people in their hometown in the middle region of Vietnam. Politics eventually brought the downfall of the small landowners, forcing Dieu Lan to flee her home with five children in tow, grieving her oldest who escapes separately. She slowly, reluctantly leaves them in relative safety along the long walk north to Hanoi, promising to come back to find them once she’s settled.

Her granddaughter, Huong (or Guava), grows up in Hanoi and goes to school during the worst of the American bombing raids and after as the communist government establishes itself. The two women live together in the old city while all the members of the in-between generation are taken away by the war in one way or another. Huong’s own troubles and those of her extended family illustrate the trials of ordinary Vietnamese people during the turbulent times. She struggles to understand the adults in her life, and how the war changed them.

As the book progresses, Dieu Lan rediscovers her entire family as she originally pledged – both as children when they fled their village and later as the war ends. Grandma’s story is an agonizing portrayal of the hard choices women make to survive.

The title references a small native bird. Huong’s father carves a wooden version for her while he’s gone to war. The name of the bird translates to “the mountains sing” for its constant song, but its survival became endangered after Agent Orange was used on the upland regions. The symbolic heart of the book, the wooden carving comforts Huong and reminds us of the fragile nature of peace and the continued hope that, one day, the mountains will sing again.

The title is also available as an eBook and an audiobook on CD.

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, dance, and watch baseball (but not all at the same time).