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March 24, 2023

Dust Child by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai ~ a Review

by MK French

In 1969, sisters Trang and Quỳnh “bar girls” in Sài Gòn to help their parents pay off debts. Bar girls are known to drink, flirt and sleep with American GIs in return for money. Trang falls in love with a young American helicopter pilot. Decades later, Dan, returns to Việt Nam with his wife Linda to heal from his PTSD and deal with his secrets. At the same time, Phong, the son of a Black American soldier and a Vietnamese woman, searches for them and a way out of Việt Nam. Phong grew up being called “the dust of life,” “Black American imperialist,” and “child of the enemy,” leaving him dreaming of a better life.

Amazon affiliate links are used on this site. A free book was provided for an honest review.

book cover of historical fiction novel Dust Child by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
March 2023; Algonquin Books; 978-1643752754
audio, ebook, print (352 pages); historical fiction

The Vietnam War left scars in both countries that for some have still not healed. The Amerasian children left behind were unwanted by the populace, especially those with darker skin. That colorist view affected not just the mixed Black kids on the street, but other ethnic groups like the Khmer who lived in the south. In this novel, those troubles are brought home in Phong's story; he's used and rejected frequently by those around him once his loving caretaker dies when he's twelve. Through him, we see what life was like in Vietnam following the American withdrawal of troops. Then we see the dual timelines of the sisters' story in 1969 and Dan returning later in life. His trauma had affected him for years, and he remained silent about the affair with Kim and the pregnancy upon his return to the US. Other soldiers had gone back, had married their girlfriends or abandoned them, looked for their children, or rejected them. It was a complex time for so many, and there are no singular experiences. Still, with Dan and Linda's experience coming in to visit, we are told bits and pieces of others' experiences in the country.

Dust Child doesn't shy away from the life the sisters had to live in their village and then in Sài Gòn. The quiet country life meant hard work in the fields because of failed exams, while the bar girl scene meant fast money and compromised principles for Trang, who became Kim, as well as her sister. Dan is no saint, just an ordinary soldier, so we see the mistakes he makes as he makes them. His heart might be in the right place, but he's clumsy as he goes about it, hurting Linda in the process. The lives of these people twist and turn around each other; the back cover copy likens it to Charles Dickens, and it's an apt description. There is pain and tragedy in their stories, and sometimes people don't get the easy answers they seek. It's brilliantly told, and a wonderful look at this turbulent period.

Buy Dust Child at Amazon

Born and raised in New York City, M.K. French started writing stories when very young, dreaming of different worlds and places to visit. She always had an interest in folklore, fairy tales, and the macabre, which has definitely influenced her work. She currently lives in the Midwest with her husband, three young children, and a golden retriever.

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