Book review: That Summer in Provincetown

As the world is transfixed by the flight of thousands of refugees from areas torn by war, hunger, and atrocity, we tend to forget that each individual represents a multi-faceted drama.

The common denominator is fear, even terror, the desire for safety and freedom from persecution.

A reminder of how complex the lives of refugees can be is gleaned in Caroline Vu’s latest novel, the story of her extended family as told in fictionalized biography form.

Most of That Summer in Provincetown (Guernica Editions, 130 pages, $20) takes place in Vietnam, before, during and after what we call the Vietnam War, and they call the American War.

It is in some ways a follow-up to her first novel, the engaging Palawan Story, which is a fictionalized account of a young woman coming of age in a Philippines reception
centre for Vietnamese Boat People and her new life in North America.

In her second novel, Vu, a physician and Westmount resident, treats the reader to the complexity of life in Vietnam during the war period.

The title refers to the charismatic and dashing Daniel, who, after arriving in America, contracts HIV in the everything-goes sexual freedom days of 1970s Provincetown. For the outwardly conservative and traditional Vietnamese, the disease that kills him is unmentionable. It is swept under the rug, as is so much behind the veil of appearances that are lifted in Vu’s narrative: forced marriages, rebellion, infidelity, and behind it all, the overpowering grandmother who passes on myths, fantasies and prejudices to the family even as she keeps it from falling apart.

It is a remarkable story of traditions and the pressures and influences of politics and shifting colonial patterns, as the Vietnamese struggle for freedom from big-power oppression and domination, even as they learn and adapt. The history of Vietnam is woven into the narrative, starting from the 1954 “partition” of the country as a result of the Geneva Agreement following the collapse of French colonialism. It was to be divided temporarily into north and south, with the promise, unfulfilled, of an election that was to lead to unification.

Fear of Communism drove thousands to the south, a first wave of refugees including the family in the novel, arriving penniless in Saigon.

Grandfather brings with him an opium addiction that he can now only satisfy with pharmaceuticals.

Others, a smaller number, venture north, believing they’ll find a more perfect world there, under Ho Chi Minh.

Certainly, life in the south was becoming more and more bleak. The narrator recalls: “… As the Americans poured more troops and money into the war, the generals grew richer and fatter, they became less interested in the war. Their only strategic planning was to build mansions for their mistresses behind their wives’ backs.”

It was only after coming to Canada that Vietnamese like the narrator learned of American crimes in Vietnam, which she lists as the bombing of densely populated Hanoi, using the poisonous defoliant Agent Orange to clear forests, using napalm that burnt the flesh of innocent adults and children, and the massacre of civilians at My Lai.

“The friendly American soldiers giving me candies on the street were in fact Public Enemy Number One of the World Stage,” she writes, regretting that the self-censoring and self-serving Vietnamese media failed to reflect this.

Since the Vietnam War was a pivotal driver of the cultural revolution during the 1960s in the West, this inside look at the upheavals in traditional Vietnamese society will deepen our understanding of it. Having spent three years in Southeast Asia much of the time alongside Vietnamese expats, it reminded me of the turmoil of displacement, the desperation of those seeking refuge.

Caroline Vu has done a remarkable job in bringing her family’s complex story to life, using pseudonyms of course, and placing it in the historical and political context that serves as a reminder of how political turmoil creates tragic situations, and how a huge, wealthy, and generally welcoming society like Canada’s can make the world a better place by opening its doors to those seeking refuge.

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