The Best Literature on the Vietnam War from a Female Perspective

By Charles L. Templeton

The Books I Picked & Why

The Mountains Sing

By Mai Phan Que Nguyen

The Mountains Sing

Why this book?

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai has created a beautifully told tale of the Tran family’s journey through the twentieth century. It is a story of triumph and tragedy, sorrow and joy, and the monumental struggle to overcome the most brutal vicissitudes of life. Although the struggles are different, the Tran family’s trials are reminiscent of the Joad family in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and the Wang family in Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth.

It is a story about how families come together during times of great tribulations and the lengths they will go to survive and to remain together. The tale is about the bonds of unconditional love and support that define a family more than its bloodlines. When young Huong (please forgive me if I Anglicize the names) and Grandmother Diệu Lan must flee to the village of Hoa Binh, Huong wants to know how they will eat on the journey. Grandmother reassures her not to worry, “Farmers there will feed us what they have. In times of crisis, people are kind.” This reassurance is similar to Ma Joad in Grapes, “if you're in trouble or hurt or need—go to poor people. They're the only ones that'll help—the only ones.”

The Mountain Sings is a story about the strength and wisdom of the women of Vietnam. Just as Ma Joad held the Joad clan together and O-lan held the Wang family together, it is so with Diệu Lan holding the Tran family together. Dieu Lan holds it together during the worst of times and nourishes its prosperity during the times of blessing. The story is written in a poetic, personal, and passionate form. I could sit and listen to the Vietnamese language all day, as it is both melodic and soulful. Quế Mai finds words and combinations of words that sing to each other on the page in both Vietnamese and English and resonate in the hearts of humanity.


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Home Before Morning: The Story of an Army Nurse in Vietnam

By Lynda Van Devanter

Home Before Morning: The Story of an Army Nurse in Vietnam

Why this book?

In the late eighties and early nineties, there was a TV series that ran for about four years based on this book, and it was called China Beach. The show always opened with the Supremes hit from 1967 Reflections:

“Oh, I'm all alone now
No love to shield me
Trapped in a world
That's a distorted reality...”

Lynda’s story is one of courage in the worst possible circumstances, the ill-equipped and understaffed operating room in the '71st Evac' (the busy 71st Evacuation Hospital in the Pleiku Province of central Vietnam). Lynda gallantly performed jill-of-all-trades work on wounded and maimed military personnel and Vietnamese civilians.

Lynda Van Devanter’s Home Before Morning is a gut-wrenching tale of the all-American girl who finds herself in the most grotesque of places but somehow manages to find the courage to keep going. Upon returning home, Lynda found out that female veterans did not receive the same benefits as men returning from that war. Like many vets, Lynda suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that went undiagnosed and untreated by the Veterans Administration for years because of her gender. Lynda began working with the Vietnam Veterans Association in 1980 on their Women’s Project and lobbied Congress for recognition of women who served in Vietnam.


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The Doom Pussy

By Ben Shephard

The Doom Pussy

Why this book?

Elaine Shepard wrote Doom Pussy in 1967 and explained in her introduction that only the pilots who flew on missions at night to North Vietnam were entitled to wear the Doom Pussy patch on their left shoulders. On the patch was a cat with an eye patch eating an airplane, and in Vietnamese were the words “Trong miệng của con mèo của định mạng” and literally translated means, “I have flown into the jaws of the cat of death.” Most American fliers just said, “I have seen the Doom Pussy.” This was another one of those amazing stories about a woman that competes with distinction in what was then considered a man’s world, journalism. She flew into combat on a Huey slick with Lieutenant Colonel Chuck Honour. Col. Honour was killed three months after Ms. Shepard flew with him. She has chronicled her exploits and those of the pilots she flew with reverence in this novel.

Elaine Shepard’s story embodies the essence of the “Renaissance Woman.” She lived a full and amazing life, or should I say three lives. Her first life involved being a contract actress for R.K.O. studios, where she shared the screen with actors such as Clark Gable. Later, she changed directions and became a reporter. Contemporary reports from a couple of generations ago on her career as a journalist focused as much on Shepard's made-for-television face and figure as on her reporting - "Elaine, blonde and calm, moves like Marilyn Monroe, talks like Ava Gardner and writes like Ernie Pyle," wrote one critic. Of course, Elaine eventually ended up in Vietnam and earning the Doom Pussy Patch. When she left Vietnam. The Air Force pilots at Da Nang gave her a cigarette lighter with the inscription, “The Last of the Great Broads.” It seems appropriate that her third career would be as an author who immortalized these pilots and their courage under fire in her timeless novel, Doom Pussy.


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When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman's Journey from War to Peace

By Jay Wurts, Le Ly Hayslip

When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman's Journey from War to Peace

Why this book?

Born Phùng Thị Lệ Lý, in a small village south of Da Nang, Le Ly presents a new and emerging view of the American War in Vietnam. This emerging literature attempts to expand the boundaries of the war in Vietnam to include the Vietnamese people and a culture that existed for thousands of years. The overwhelming amount of literature about the war in Vietnam has been written by Americans, and not surprisingly, by American veterans who mainly have written about their personal experiences. Le Ly Hayslip writes about her experiences at the hands of the South Vietnamese government, her rape by the Viet Cong, and her incredible resilience to keep fighting and bouncing back from the violence and degradation the war brought to her and her family. She weaves the story by going back to her childhood and then to her reunion with her family in the 1980s. Many of the graphic passages about Le Ly’s experiences will elicit a strong response from the reader. This story is just one woman’s view of the American War in Vietnam. But when all of the stories about that war are taken together, the stories of the North Vietnamese soldiers as well as those in the South, the farmers and villagers in the North and South, the women who served in the military for both the Vietnamese and the Americans, the Vietnamese who came to America as well as those who went to other countries throughout the world, a picture of the Vietnam War starts to develop that involves looking at that war through the lens of everyone that was traumatized by it. Le Ly Hayslip has added to the body of knowledge about the Vietnam War and provided a more comprehensive understanding of the hardships faced by women that lived through that war.


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The Gangster We Are All Looking For

By Thi Diem Thuy Le

The Gangster We Are All Looking For

Why this book?

Lê Thi Diem Thúy’s novel tells the story of a young refugee girl in San Diego. The novel is a lyrical accounting, full of disjointed narrative and poetic language, that captures her thoughts and feelings as a Vietnamese immigrant to San Diego in 1978. Early on in the war, most of the literature was written by soldiers and correspondents and dealt strictly with the military side of the war. Later in the eighties and nineties, the scope and quality of the writing about Vietnam has vastly improved, as different perspectives are brought to bear on the war. Lê Thi Diem Thúy writes about refugees whose experiences were much more traumatic compared to the American soldiers who never actually saw combat. Originally published in 2003, it is imminently relevant today.


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