THE GIRL IN
THE KIM PHUC
by Denise Chong about
Girl" as she struggled
by Marianne Fulton
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.
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
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
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.
George Eastman House
"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.