Lee Lien is feeling stalled in life. An English-literature Ph.D. with zero job prospects, she has recently moved home to Illinois to live with her Vietnamese mother and grandfather, who have spent the past 20 years running Pan-Asian buffets across the Midwest.
So begins Pioneer Girl, Bich Minh Nguyen’s quirky and compelling new novel, which is at once about the immigrant experience, the allure of the American frontier and Little House on the Prairie. (It works, we swear.)
Central to the plot is a mysterious pin, given to the Liens in 1965 by an American journalist who may or may not have been Rose Wilder (daughter of Little House author Laura Ingalls Wilder). Lee has always felt a strange connection to this pin, so with her own career in limbo, she decides to travel westward to California and figure out its provenance.
Woven throughout this pacy literary mystery is Laura and Rose Wilder’s fascinating true-life tale (churning butter! secret ghostwriting!), and Nguyen deftly compares their classic pioneering spirit with that of the 21st-century Asian-American. After all, Lee’s covered wagon may be a Greyhound bus, but she’s still searching for that same promised land.