Vietnam has been at war and in conflicts for most of the past century: Following sporadic combat with China and the French colonial conquest came the Japanese occupation, internal conflict, the French Indochina War, and then, as the Vietnamese term it today, the American War. As in the French war, the early part of the American war in South Vietnam was often fought in the remote Highlands or far south in the Mekong Delta. Villagers living in many parts of the then South Vietnam went on with their lives as small shop owners, street vendors and farmers.
But the war moved inexorably into the area and the village of Trang Bang, where the family of Phan Thi Kim Phuc lived.
The great achievement of Denise Chong's book "The Girl in the Picture" is starting with the famous photograph: the dreadful result of the South Vietnamese air force dropping napalm near the village pagoda. Thereby burning anonymous children immortalized by photographer Nick Ut. The girl in the photograph now called Kim Phuc would have her life changed forever.
For what may be the first time in recent writing about the Vietnam War, the life of a simple family is chronicled - beginning before the attack up to the present day.
If one wants to understand something of living in a war zone, dealing with South Vietnamese government soldiers by day and with the Vietcong at night, working long hours in a soup and noodle shop, holding a family together - Denise Chang's book is eye-opening and indispensable.
Kim Phuc's mother, Nu, worked from 1:00 a.m. in the morning until late at night preparing food for the family and her shop customers. She hurried home before dark to continue her work because every one knew that the night belonged to Vietcong on the move. Often, there would be a whisper of "Mother" from the front gate, meaning that a Vietcong soldier wanted something to eat.
After the napalm attack, Kim started on her long recovery and determination to be a doctor and well-educated person. Her studies were continually interrupted by the Hanoi government officials who wished to use her for propaganda purposes. She was displayed for hundreds of photographers; her interviews with the world press were carefully coordinated. Kim was sent to Hanoi, back to Ho Chi Minh City and Moscow, thus ruining her chances of keeping up at school.
The book goes into detail about her trials and resilient nature in the midst of chaos - both wartime and family.
In 1986 she was sent to Havana to study. She switched her major from medicine to pharmacology (meanwhile learning the requisite Spanish). At school she met and married another Vietnamese student, Bai Huy Toan. Kim longed to escape her "minders" and unbelievably cruel Vietnamese administrators.
In 1992 Kim and Toan were sent to Moscow and she saw her first chance to escape the system. On the return trip to Cuba, while refueling in Canada, she and Toan got off the plane, carrying nothing in order to avoid suspicion. They defected to Canada.
The book is moving and the story unsentimentally written. It gives us a glimpse of how one family, one daughter, out of thousands, managed to get through a fearful time.
"The Girl in the Picture: The Story of Kim Phuc" by Denise Chong was published by Viking, in the Penguin Publishing Group, Canada in 1999.