A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Duong Van Mai Elliott's The Sacred Willow illuminates recent Vietnamese history by weaving together the stories of the lives of four generations of her family. Beginning with her great-grandfather, who rose from rural poverty to become an influential landowner, and continuing to the present, Mai Elliott traces her family's journey through an era of tumultuous change. She tells us of childhood hours in her grandmother's silk shop, and of hiding while French troops torched her village, watching while blossoms torn by fire from the trees flutter "like hundreds of butterflies" overhead. She makes clear the agonizing choices that split Vietnamese families: her eldest sister left her staunchly anti-communist home to join the Viet Minh, and spent months sleeping in jungle camps with her infant son, fearing air raids by day and tigers by night. And she follows several family members through the last, desperate hours of the fall of Saigon-including one nephew who tried to escape by grabbing the skid of a departing American helicopter. Based on family papers, dozens of interviews, and a wealth of other research, this is not only a memorable family saga but a record of how the Vietnamese themselves have experienced their times.
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.