Grass Roof, Tin Roof - reviewed by Randi Hoffman

"Grass Roof, Tin Roof"A novel by Dao Strom Mariner Books, New York 231 Pages, $12

Review by Randi Hoffman

The steamy, crowded streets of Saigon and the cool and the dark woods of Northern California form the backdrop of Dao Strom's first novel, Grass Roof, Tin Roof (Mariner Books, 2003). The story begins in Vietnam in the mid-seventies, where in the midst of the war, a young woman journalist struggles make a good life for herself and her two children. Vietnam is presented as a gentle, emotional and sentimental culture, although Tran, the mother, is in many ways treated brutally there. Born into a family where girls are not educated, Tran devours her brother¬πs books, works her way through Saigon University, and transforms herself into a modern, urban woman.

While in college, Tran dates a French war correspondent who tells her that Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind is the most important book in the English language. Tran is fascinated by the descriptions of the lush, sweltering landscapes during the last days of the Confederacy, by the doomed love story, and by the romanticized vision of the American South, with its panoramic rolling green hills and hilltop Greek revival plantation houses. Tran enjoys the illusion of a clear cut vision of right and wrong provided in Gone with the Wind. She's perceptive enough to see the moral ambiguity inherent in the falling government of her own country.

Tran lives in an apartment with her toddler son, Thien, on a dark, winding alley, and she works in a small, crowded newspaper office. For the paper she writes an ongoing serial based on Gone with the Wind, but set in a Vietnamese port city. When the French journalist returns to France, Tran becomes the lover of the semi-underground, married editor of the newspaper, Giang, with whom she conceives her second child, a girl, April (originally named Thuy).

Giang draws her into his revolutionary activities. He uses the newspaper to expose atrocities committed by both the North and South Vietnamese. Tran witnesses the burning of a village, where South Vietnamese soldiers, (backed by the United States), are killing their own people. The village is being punished for merely being located too close to a corrupt general¬πs mansion, constructed with funds stolen from the government.

Traveling through rural Vietnam they find the mansion hidden in the jungle.It is a palace of strangely configured architecture, courtyards and fountains. And suddenly in a village near this idyllic setting, is a description of destruction that is especially disturbing given the current television coverage of Iraq. And there was a fire (later she thought of it often): The village was ablaze when they came out of the jungle. Like ghost-witnesses, the four had slunk through the tall grass. Men, women and children were running, scattering into the trees and nearby rice fields, their black peasant rags and conical straw hats flapping. Straw huts shriveled. (Later the military-issued report would claim that the villagers were spies and that the village had housed propaganda, tools and provisions for the guerrilla enemy forces.) (p.21).

Giang publishes photographs of the mansion and the burning village, and protects himself by running the story under Tran's byline. This and subsequent, similar events lead to Tran being abducted, questioned, and beaten on her hands. The officials want to know the identity of the father of her child, which she refuses to reveal.

Within a short time, the newspaper is shut down, and Saigon and the South Vietnamese government is falling. After a phone call, following a prearranged plan, Tran boards an airplane guarded by American soldiers and flies to the the United States with her two small children. The next day, Vietnamese people storm the American embassy, begging to get out.

Once in the United States, Tran and her children live in three different refugee camps. She publishes a piece about her experiences in the Sacramento Bee. Hus, a Danish immigrant, reads it and writes to her, sensing she shares his feeling of displacement. The two hit it off and marry in Nevada, and Tran has a third child, Beth. Hus is an architect, and he buys a parcel of land in the woods outside Sacramento, with views of yellow wheat fields, the American river and the Coloma Valley.

The family lives in a trailer on the land while Hus builds the family a house, and Tran, while no longer a romantic girl pining over the landscape of Confederate Georgia, finally gets her American vistas. Here Tran will see more trees and taller trees and stranger formations of land and grass than she'd ever imagined. (p.48) And the American culture that greets her is harsher and more literal than what she knew in Vietnam.

Sadly, at this point the novel changes focus. The once brave, resourceful and independent woman now is depicted as a submissive wife and mother, and the novel centers upon Tran¬πs three children, now teenagers, as they struggle with their mixed-race identities. April, the middle child, dresses in black, applies black eyeliner, and is the morbid Goth of the family. While her mother grew up very poor, in crowded surroundings, April has much more privilege, and finds solace in nature wandering the woods around her house.

April writes, I climbed to where the hill leveled into a meadow of thin, yellow grass and scattered boulders. From here I could see the mountains and the American River winding quietly along the bottom of the Coloma Valley. This was the view our father had built our house to look out on. The only sound I could hear was the creek running. I opened my mouth to scream into the silence then, and I tried to make myself sound like a red-tailed hawk (p. 80)

The family faces both threats of violence and subtle racism from the surrounding rural community. Even the father, Hus, is embarrassed by his wife's relatives and harbors his own strange ideas about the superiority of certain races and cultures. And while the three children aren't seen by their neighbors as American, April especially feels out of place with her Vietnamese relatives living in San Diego, who seem crowded together, noisy and too brightly dressed for her.

In the third, last, and too brief, section of the novel, April returns to Saigon as an adult by herself in 1996, following the sudden death of her mother. The purpose of this tragedy in the book is unclear, and not really explored. Hus has sent her, and she sends her observations back to him in the form of letters and journal entries. Once in Vietnam, April is struck by her relative's poverty and living conditions. She writes, Her house has two rooms with a single faucet on the side alley outside, on a narrow rutted street where all the houses are low and small and built very close together.They store water in a big plastic tub and hang their clothes to dry on a line in the back of the alley. (p.205).

In Saigon her relatives tell her she looks like her mother and she is struck by her mother¬πs expressions and mannerisms in them. She is fond of them, and yet Vietnam is an alien place to her, and she has a hard time believing she ever spoke the language. She writes in her journal, My cousin and I were sitting on a bench facing the Saigon river when she told me that sadness is actually the main current of life. To feel sadness is evidence of the true texture of experience. Sadness, it seemed she was telling me, is also an inherent characteristic of the Vietnamese culture. They have staked their claim to it. They are certain they are among those in the world who have had the most of it - and how can you say they are wrong? (p.23) While April¬πs journey is to find out more about herself and her mother, it is the part of the book about Tran¬πs years as a young woman and revolutionary in wartime Vietnam that is the most vividly drawn. But it is as if she disappears into the unpopulated spaces of California when her family settles there.

Strom creates clear and moving atmospheres and landscapes. The natural and urban scenery reflect the character's emotional states. And the glimpse into wartime Saigon is fascinating and perceptive, especially as we impose war upon another Asian country we don't understand.