Author: Sarah-Ann Smith
ISBN: 978 061 560 0710
Author: Sarah-Ann Smith
ISBN: 978 061 560 0710
This is the story of Trang Sen, or “white lotus”, a brave and brilliant Vietnamese girl who had to grow up during the Vietnam War. Masterfully written by a diplomat who has extensive experience and knowledge of the cultures, the settings and human psychology, the book follows Trang Sen’s journey from her first encounter with an American when she was a child in a Vietnamese village in 1957, her teen years in the alleys of Saigon as the war raged, her coming-of-age and love life as the war worsened, to her life in the late 70s after the U.S. army pullout from Vietnam.
Trinh Trang Sen is different from all other children in her village. She dreams to be allowed to work the fields with the buffalo like the boys do instead of doing a girl’s chores. She dreams to read books and get proper education like amazing Eldest Brother who is away in a university in France. She dreams to ride an elephant and lead her people like her country’s proud queens of old.
Before she knows it, her first dream is granted. Not as she wished it though, but because Second Brother and Third Brother must go to the war, and help her parents she must. She toils in the fields in great hardship in the following years, miserable despite being a successful plough-woman.
When refined Eldest Brother comes home from France, Trang Sen’s dream to study is granted too and she moves to a convent school in Saigon. She still studies even when the war eventually necessitates that she look after her remaining family members. Trang Sen is so smart that she wins further scholarship—they are making plans for her to attend a university in France when love happens.
U.S. officer Arthur Billings cannot forget the very beautiful girl he once met deep in a humble Saigon market where local refugees dwell. When they meet again, he is determined not to let her go. Alas, unlike the tea-girls who live at the beck and call of the foreigners, Trang Sen is not your average peasant girl. She is respectable, principled, proud and has set her sight for higher education. What can he offer her in the war-torn Saigon, to change her mind about going to France?
Trinh Van Long has returned home from his beloved Paris to do his duties to his family and his country. The war has torn the land, destroyed villages, displaced families and divided his people. While the American army in Vietnam is guaranteed supplies for their living, the hapless Vietnamese suffer abject poverty and being ruled by foreigners who don’t understand them. Long has secrets and blood in his hands, and if in the middle of all this chaos and heartaches one good thing could be salvaged, it is First Sister, the beautiful and intelligent Trang Sen who has worked so hard for her studies while looking after the family. Long contrives to get her to Paris, because only there can she be safe and indulge in her dream of intellectual pursuit. He owes her that.
Caught in the maelstrom of the war in fears and hopes, what choices will Trang Sen make? She alone will have to live with the consequences.
Trang Sen is the kind of those very rare books that grab your attention from the first paragraphs, take you on a journey to where you knew not, entertain you, educate you, make you care about the people and the topics visited, and then leave you reeling, stunned, and you emerge at the other end thinking, looking back, and thinking again—because the author has changed your understanding forever. The characters are very human and the events flow naturally that reading this book I found myself looking at the cover again and again, staring at the words “A Novel”, because the author has the skills to connect readers to her characters and make the story feels very real.
Sarah-Ann Smith opens Trang Sen with the legend of the brave queens of Vietnam and proceeds to show us the portrait of a beautiful land teeming with lives, in vivid colours that we can see, sounds that we can hear, along with scents, tastes and texture. Not only does she introduce us to the exotic culture and habits of the attractive locals, she delves deep into their fascinating minds with intriguing insights —expertly with the skills that reminds me of the long ago Pulitzer award winner Pearl S. Buck, whose work once upon a time I read when, as a charity case, I learned the English language in a Catholic high school eerily similar to the one Trang Sen attended.
That is before Sarah-Ann empathically touches the issue of the war, which scenes remind me of Sartre. She opens our eyes to what it was really like out there. I had followed the Vietnam War as it was all over my mother’s newspaper when I was learning to read, and I followed their plight in the aftermath when thousands of refugees were stranded in the islands off Sumatra where they had to wait for so many years in limbo before finding new homes. I remember they were viewed as burdens and treated with hostility. I don’t remember anyone writing anything close to Trang Sen then, but I wish there had been because this book certainly opens eyes and powerfully evokes compassion.
That war is over but others are still raging. I would like people to read this book. Trang Sen is an excellent read for high school students, all other young people, and all adults who have the power to make a difference, because this book clearly shows why a war is never the right path towards problem solving, achieving peace, or preserving human dignity. Love for all, hatred for none.
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