Robert Olen Butler

A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain

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A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain Summary

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Drawing on his experiences as a translator and spy during the Vietnam War, in 1992 American author Robert Olen Butler published a collection of short stories about refugees from that war. Titled after one of the stories, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, the collection won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. After the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, more than three million refugees fled the country, with about half settling in the United States. They were unable to return to Vietnam, which had been transformed into an unrecognizable place that posed danger to those who tried to escape from its Communist revolutionaries. Butler gives voice to the variety of struggles refugees face in the new environment. Each story in the collection is written in the first person from the perspective of a different Vietnamese immigrant to Louisiana, thematically linked by issues of culture clash, identity preservation, and assimilation.

In “Open Arms,” we are still in the midst of a war. A Vietnamese translator working with the Australian army tells the story of Thập, a former Communist who has defected after his wife and children were murdered. When the Australian soldiers take him to see an X-rated movie, Thập is disgusted. Eventually, he murders an Australian soldier and kills himself. The narrator speculates that Thập was torn because he found the porn immoral, but it also reminded him of his desires for his dead wife.

“Mr. Green” is a parrot that belonged to the grandfather of a woman who narrates how she learned about the sacred practice of ancestor worship – and that, as a woman in a patriarchal system, she would never be allowed to perform this ritual. Although at first, the woman cares for the parrot, bringing it to America, she eventually wrings its neck, discarding the misogyny of Vietnamese Confucianism for feelings of self-worth anchored by the sexual revolution and second-wave feminism.

“The Trip Back” is told from the point of view of Kánh, a young man whose wife is thrilled that her grandfather has finally been allowed to immigrate. But when Kánh picks the old man up the airport, he is saddened to see that the grandfather suffers from severe dementia. He can remember his own childhood but has no memory of his granddaughter. Kánh worries that, eventually, he too will end up like the grandfather, unable to remember his life.

“Fairy Tale” mocks the conventions of rags-to-riches immigrant stories. Miss Noi, a prostitute, marries an American soldier and moves to the U.S. When she finds her new life too stifling, she leaves him and once again starts doing sex work. Soon, she meets another Vietnam War veteran in the strip club where she dances, marries him, and lives the good life.

In “Crickets,” Thiệu is having trouble adapting to life in Louisiana and relating to his completely Americanized son, Bill. Trying to connect Bill to some piece of his cultural background, Thiệu – or Ted – tries to teach his son a favorite childhood game: making crickets fight each other. But the obstacles to their relationship, which include language, prove too great. Bill doesn’t care about crickets, and Thiệu is forced to abandon his efforts.

“Letters From My Father” is narrated by a mixed-race teenager who has grown up in Vietnam without her American father. When she and her mother are finally allowed to immigrate to the U.S., she has trouble forging a connection to a man she has only known from photographs. But when she finds the letters he had been writing to the US government, arguing eloquently and passionately for her to be allowed to enter the country, she feels the depths of his love for her in his indignant and poetic anger.

“Love” tells the story of a Vietnamese spy who used to use his connections to the American army to order missile attacks on the homes of men he suspected of flirting with his wife. When the couple comes to the U.S., the husband seeks out the services of a practitioner of voodoo to curse the man he believes is having an affair with his wife.

“Preparation” follows the pre-funeral rituals performed by the elderly woman narrator for the body of her best friend. While she readies the body for burial, she envies the beautiful hair of the deceased – hair that she has been jealous of ever since the two became childhood friends in Saigon.

“Mid-Autumn” and “In the Clearing” chronicle the way parents pass on fairy tales and myths to their children. In “Mid-Autumn,” a pregnant woman tells her unborn baby a story about an emperor who found happiness on the moon; while in “In the Clearing,” a father apologizes to his son for having had to leave the family in Vietnam.

In “A Ghost Story,” the narrator tells the story of Miss Linh, a ghost who rescues men in order to later eat them. He swears that this story is true – and he should know. Although Miss Linh has left him alone, he has been devoured by the ghost of Vietnam itself – so much so that he has been turned into a ghost in America.

“Snow” tells the story of a waitress named Giàu who bonds with a Jewish man while he is waiting for his takeout order. It turns out that they are both scared of snow – and have enough things in common that they decide to go on a date.

The narrator of “Relic” is a man who, feeling stifled by the Vietnamese immigrant community, wants to break away from it in order to be a more successful businessman. But despite his attachment to assimilation, he is haunted by his past: by memories of his wife and children, who stayed in Vietnam.

“The American Couple” is more novella than short story. Gabrielle and Vinh are in Mexico on vacation when they meet an American couple, Frank and Eileen. Frank and Vinh soon start being passive-aggressively hostile with each other about their experiences as soldiers in Vietnam. Gabrielle can only note the tension – because she has never known much about Vinh’s experiences, she can only observe the men from the outside.

The collection’s title story, “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain,” was also included in 1992’s Best American Short Stories. In it, a very old dying man named Dao describes how different kinds of people have suffered because of what happened in Vietnam. His son-in-law and grandson helped murder a fellow immigrant who voiced support for Vietnam’s new Communist regime. His daughter has tried her best to maintain her cultural identity. His childhood acquaintance Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Communist revolutionaries, is now a discontented ghost who can’t find peaceful rest. As Dao approaches death, he reflects on his own way of dealing with the war: trying to remain as uninvolved and as committed to peace as possible.

The narrator of “Salem” is a Vietnamese sniper who kills American soldiers, looting their corpses for any items that the government can use to identify them. Inside a pack of Salem cigarettes, he finds a photograph of the dead young man’s wife.

“Missing” is the only story told from the perspective of an American – a soldier who stayed behind in Vietnam after the war in order to be with the woman he loves. They now live in a village and have a daughter. One day, someone shows him an American newspaper article about soldiers that are “missing” – and his picture is one of them. But to the narrator, the idea that he should go back to the U.S. is odd. “I’m not missing. I’m here,” he says – the village is his home.