Finished June 8
Saigon by Anthony Grey
This is not a new book, but the 30th anniversary edition of an amazing novel centred on Vietnam. The action here takes place over 50 years from 1925 to 1975. At it's centre is the Sherman family, specifically Joseph Sherman. In 1925, at the age of 15, he came to Vietnam with his mother, father, and older brother Chuck to hunt. The hunting was to obtain specimens of rare animals for the Washington museum created by Joseph's grandfather. This first visit of Joseph to Vietnam also connects him to three other families that play an important role in the novel. One is the French Devraux family. The hunting guide that the Sherman's have hired is Jacques Devraux, and his son Paul is his assistant. Chuck, Paul, and Joseph are close in age and make a connection. Joseph's mother also makes a connection with the Devraux family that will have a lasting effect. Servants to Devraux family, Ngo Van Loc, his wife Mai, and their sons Dong and Hoc, are not treated well and their lifelong struggle to regain an independent life now includes a strong resentment against the Devraux men. In their first days, the Shermans also meet the Tran family. Tran Van Hieu is a mandarin and at one of the formal events, the Tran children have stayed in the palace grounds while the formal event takes place inside. Joseph makes the acquaintance of the three childen Tam, 12; Kim, 11; and their sister Lan, 10.
His experiences lead Joseph to a lifelong fascination with Vietnam, and he becomes a scholar in the history of the region. When he returns again in 1936, he again encounters the Devraux and Tran families and renews his friendship with Paul, while creating a different connection with Tran Van Lan.
Joseph returns to Vietnam again in World War II, first as a pilot and then as an OSS officer working with the Vietnamese against the Japanese. His experiences here form strong bonds with the Vietnamese revolutionaries and the reader sees a chance to avoid the future tragedies of this nation lost in the colonially oriented decisions of the war's aftermath.
When Joseph return next, it is as a reporter, and he covers the French struggle against the Vietnamese, in particular the battle at Dien Bien Phu.
As the Americans become more involved in the tragedy of Vietnam, Joseph returns many times, as a reporter, a government official, or a civilian who cares deeply about the country he has intimate ties with.
At almost 800 pages, this is not a light read, but the novel flows quickly, leading the reader on through the strong characters he creates. Each section begins with a short historical comment of what is going on politically in Vietnam at the time. This gives us context and a grounding in the forces that influence the characters in that section. I learned so much about Vietnam's history through the reading of this novel, and highly recommend it to those who may be visiting this country or just interested in history.