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The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family [Paperback]

Duong Van Mai Elliott
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Feb. 18 2003
Growing up in Hanoi, Haiphong, and Saigon, Mai Elliott loved listening to the stories told by her parents and other relatives about their parents and grandparents. She found these tales fascinating - some funny, some tragic. She knew one day she would tell their stories and she has in her book The Sacred Willow. In The Sacred Willow Mai tells the story of her family over four generations, from the 19th century to the present. She takes us back to the vanished world where her great-grandfather, Duong Lam, rose from poverty to become a mandarin at the imperial court. She tells of childhood hours spent in her grandmother's sil shop - and of hiding while French troops torched her village, watching blossoms from the trees torn by fire flutter "like hundreds of butterflies" overhead. She reveals the agonizing choices that split Vietnamese families, while her father, loyal to his mandarin heritage, served the French colonial regime, her eldest sister joined the Communist guerillas and vanished for years into the jungle. Finally, Mai traces her family's journey through some of the most harrowing events of recent times - the fall of Saigon, the exodus of the boat people, and the re-education camps endured by those who were left behind. Writing with insight and compassion, Mai Elliott weaves a narrative with the richness and colour of a historical novel. Haunting, heartbreaking and inspiring, The Sacred Willow wo;; fprever cjamge pir imderstamdomg pf Vietnam and our role in it.

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The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family + Vietnam and America: The Most Comprehensive Documented History of the Vietnam War
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Product Description

From Amazon

Most books about Vietnam focus on the French who colonized it or the Americans who sought to "save" it. This combination of memoir and family history shows the Vietnamese "as they saw themselves as the central players in their own history." The author's perspective is particularly enlightening because her relatives, though unquestionably better-educated and better-off than the typical Vietnamese, made a variety of political and social choices over the course of the turbulent century she chronicles. Her great-grandfather was a mandarin and member of the imperial court; her father was a government official under French rule; her older sister married a Communist. Elliott herself enrolled in Georgetown's School of Foreign Service in 1960, married an American, and supported the U.S. crusade in Vietnam until her experiences interviewing Vietcong prisoners of war for a Rand Corporation study convinced her that the corrupt Saigon regime failed to offer a convincing alternative to Communism. Because she had family on both sides, Elliott's portrait of the war is subtler and less didactic than previous accounts by proponents of either ideology. Her prose is a bit formal and dense for the casual reader, but by telling her relatives' personal stories and explicating their culture's traditional values, her reflective narrative makes humanly complicated a history too often oversimplified. --Wendy Smith --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

In this deeply moving family saga, Elliott offers a microcosm of the history of modern Vietnam. Her great-grandfather passed the grueling tests through which unpropertied Vietnamese men tried to advance by entering the government as mandarins. More than half a century later, in 1947, when the author was six, her family fled their smoldering ancestral village while Ho Chi Minh's troops battled the French. After spending her childhood in Hanoi and her adolescence in Saigon, she studied at Georgetown University in the early 1960s. She and her future husband, David Elliott, moved to Saigon, marrying in 1964; there Elliott took a job with the Rand Corporation in a U.S. Defense Department-sponsored project, interviewing communist prisoners and defectors. Though her parents were staunchly anti-communist (her father served as governor in the puppet kingdom run by the French and later worked in South Vietnamese dictator Ngo Dinh Diem's regime), the author scorned Diem as well as the communists and, by 1969, called for an end to U.S. intervention. Family loyalties were divided: her eldest sister became a hard-core communist, while one of her brothers spent more than three years in Vietcong "reeducation" prison camps. Elliott writes with unsparing candor about forging a new identity, about her nation's destruction and its partial revival with the reintroduction of free-market mechanisms and, above all, about her family's harrowing passage through a long and difficult history. Author tour.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars A Personal Account of the Impact of history Feb. 4 2003
Duong Van Mai Elliott has given the world as intimate an account of the entire breath of Viet Namese history as you'll ever encounter. It is remarkable how close to the ground her family has always been throughout her country's efforts to break the bonds of colonialism, regardless of the oppressor. She casts history accurately, relates its impact on her forebears and brings the whole discussion front and center in the conflicts that arise among siblings as they come to terms with some who embrace Ho Chi Minh, others who embrace US personnel.
Mai's own story is full of that heart-rending division as she comes to term with her husband's family, who while very supportive of their daughter-in-law, really are not aware of the enormous drama taking place in the souls of this family. It is not like the Viet Namese to be outwardly emotional, and so their resolve to be brave in the face of often crushing personal sacrifice leaves you stunned.
One of the things I got from this book was that the US never stood a chance. The Us never understood what the central issue was for the Viet Namese people, inspite of having liberated themselves from similar colonialism in their own history. Replacing one colonialist for another, be they kinder or crueler, was not the point: they were still colonialists, and too often the US opted for choices based on ideologies instead of on the human factor, a point the Viet Minh knew was more powerful than bullets.
The war decimated Viet Namese as well as Americans, a point too often overlooked in the rush to build monuments to people who had no business there to begin with. The killing fields that would follow in the wake of the US departure would exact a toll on the humanity of a remarkable people.
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5.0 out of 5 stars story of perseverance and optimism March 20 2001
This family saga starts out slowly and methodically more than a century ago. The story of earlier generations seems distant, impersonal and embellished, as sagas are wont to get. But as the author progresses through time to the more recent past, the richness and reality of the story takes hold. If you are patient enough to wade through the first few chapters, you will find a fine and inspiring story of perseverance and optimism. As it is only one family?s experience, it should not be taken as the story of a nation. But in conversations I have had with friends and in-laws, it does seem quite typical, especially for Northern Catholics.
Many have justifiably compared this book to Wild Swans, the multi-generational tale of a Chinese family. There are many parallels between the two. But there are fundamental differences that, in my mind, negate many of the similarities. First is that Wild Swans focuses mainly on the women in the family while Sacred Willow is more equitable in its coverage of women and men in the family. Perhaps more important to my political mind is that, in Wild Swans, the family joined the Party that persecuted them while in Sacred Willow, the family tried their best to keep the ruling forces at a safe distance. An earlier reviewer cites this distance as a flaw in the story. It certainly makes the tragedy of Sacred Willow less ironic, but the family seems all the worse for it.
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5.0 out of 5 stars THE SACRED WILLOW Feb. 11 2002
I am a Vietnam vet that thoroughly enjoyed this historic background as portrayed by Mai Elliiot in this remarkable book. I have always been amazed our government prepared us so lightly for a conflict that needed the knowledge Mai exhibits for this far-away land we tromped into so blatantly. Only a vet could begin to comprehend the extent of Mai's wonderful treatment of her native people's travails and create the respect one has to garner for their toughness and leathery resiliency.
I flew helicopters in the Mekong Delta in 1966-67 at Vinh Long, with the Outlaws of the 175th Aviation Company--a very lucky assignment. I grew familiar with the terrain this VN author describes and the torment of her citizenry in this conflict. Every vet and family member of a Vietnam vet should have this book in their library; hurry up and buy it before it is past!! My book of the same title as my unit covers our flying experiences as youthful US Army Aviators.
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By A Customer
I did not realize the importance of reading a book written from a Vietnamese viewpoint until I began reading other books on Vietnam written from Western viewpoints. Certain events, such as the lasting meaning of the Tet Offensive of 1968 and Vietnam's engagement of the Khmer Rouge are shown in a completely different light in "Sacred Willow".
In addition, Elliot's coverage of an unwieldly time span is impressively complete, even though the ealiest events comprise only a few chapters of this 500-page tome.
Elliot keeps her references to her experiences in America to the bare minimum necessary to flesh out the story, which I found appropriate in a book about Vietnam (not about the Vietnamese-American immigrant experience). There are several memoirs out there dealing with Vietnam, but none are as clearly focused on Vietnam, or have near as broad a depth as this book. I am utterly satisfied and excited to have this one in my personal library.
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2.0 out of 5 stars a missed opportunity to tell a good story July 23 2002
By tl-rez
Admittedly, this book is about a family, so it's bound to be subjective. However, it's extremely apologetic towards the author's family members and their actions and circumstances, may they be good or bad. I didn't find this book a good read, because in my very private opinion, this is not a honest attempt to tell the story of a family. The author lives in the United States and neither her nor her Vietnamese relatives still in Vietnam have anything to fear either from American government or Vietnamese government at this point in time (2002). Reading this book, I couldn't help feeling that many facts were omitted or presented in a particular way so as to force the reader into a predetermined path of making a judgment. In most cases, I disagree with the author's appraisal of life in Southern Vietnam, as it's obviously biased.
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