A Bend in the River
Libby Fischer Hellmann
The Red Herring Press, June 2020
The author is known for her crime fiction award-winning stories at several levels. This enthralling story contains many mysteries, many still unanswered sixty years on. Why were American soldiers fighting in Viet Nam, being one of them. But this is not an academic examination of the politics of the 1960s, although international politics, brought down to an intensely personal level, is a thread that weaves throughout and informs this excellent novel.
This is an intimate look at the lives of two young Vietnamese sisters who see their family and their village near the shore of the Mekong River obliterated by American army action. But the novel is not an excoriation of the American expedition to Southeast Asia, nor is it an apologia for the actions of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. The novel is, instead, a close examination of the diverging lives of two children who are both determined to persist and to attempt to live normal positive lives in the midst of war and constant turmoil. Throughout their personal and professional development along widely divergent paths, Mai and Tam must respond, however unwillingly at times, to the implacable forces that alter their circumstances, bringing love and despair and validation.
Carefully researched, thoughtfully organized and appealingly written by a master storyteller, A BEND IN THE RIVER will teach readers about the Viet Nam era in the world while illuminating and venerating the stubborn persistence and humanity of two sisters caught in the vicious tentacles of a wartime society. I fully endorse and recommend the novel.
Reviewed by Carl Brookins, September 2020.
Traces, Grand Lac, Reunion, Red Sky.
An Excerpt from
A Bend in the River
Is there a warning the moment before life shatters into pieces? A minute shift in the light? The chirr of a monkey? A heaviness in the air that tastes like disaster? For Tâm Trang and her sister, Mai Linh, washing their family’s clothes in the river, the warning might have been a barely perceptible scent wafting toward them. Perfumed soap mixed with sweat. Unfamiliar. Foreign.
Or perhaps there was no warning at all. Absorbed in their task, the sisters squatted on a narrow strip of shore, scrubbing shirts with their brushes. They slapped heavier items against the rocks, then rinsed everything in the waters of the Mekong. The clothes would dry quickly. The hottest part of the year was approaching, and the combination of summer heat and the monsoons would produce an indolent lethargy that made even washing clothes a burden. Though it was only March, the sisters lifted their hair off their necks to catch the breeze.
Tâm, at seventeen, used her nón lá as a hamper for the clean clothes. At the moment it held only two pairs of tiny pants belonging to her little brother. Hung Sang, an unplanned surprise five years earlier, was now the prince of the family. According to their parents, no boy was as handsome, as talented, as lucky. With his arrival the girls’ status declined. They had become afterthoughts, to be married off quickly. Sang should not be burdened with his sisters’ care. When he grew up, he would have enough to do for his own family and his parents.
Tâm wiped sweat from her brow. Mai, three years younger, nattered on, but Tâm only half listened. She was about to graduate from the Catholic school two villages away, and she was wondering how she would continue her studies. Where would she find the money to pay for university? What would her parents say when she confessed that was her goal?
“I’m sure you know him. Lanh Phuc. He’s handsome. His is the wealthiest family in their village,” Mai said. “Their home has a real roof. And windows. His father makes sampans…” Mai giggled. “I think he likes me, Chị Tâm. I hope Mama and Papa will agree to a match. I can already picture our wedding. Of course, we will honor the Rose Silk Thread God, but it will be modern too. We will have music to dance, and—”
Tâm cut in. “Mai, you can be a silly girl. Dreaming about weddings and dancing? This is a man you may live with the rest of your life. Have you ever shared a conversation? Talked to him about his future, his dreams?” She twisted water out her father’s shirt and dropped it into the conical hat. “All I hear is that he is the son of a wealthy man, and he is handsome.”
Mai was the beauty of the family, delicate and tiny, with large black eyes, silky black hair, and soft skin that glowed white, even in shadow. Tâm had seen the longing on village boys’ faces when she passed. Her parents would have no problem arranging a match for her. Tâm was taller, leaner, and while her face had the same classic features as Mai’s, they were arranged differently. Her eyes did not appear to be as large; her nose more pronounced, her skin darker. She was attractive in her own way, but she wasn’t a beauty. Although older, she wasn’t waiting for an arranged marriage. She wasn’t interested. She wanted to study plants: their growth, foliage, colors, blossoms, how they added to their environment or not. Her Catholic science teacher explained to her that what she wanted to study was “botany.”
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