Published in 1997, Monkey Bridge
is Vietnamese American writer Lan Cao’s first novel. Set in 1975, the story follows Mai and her mother, Thanh, as they flee from Vietnam to the United States at the end of the Vietnam War. In the United States, the two encounter a conflict between Vietnamese and American culture while also struggling to relate to one another. Mai and her mother must also face secrets from the past that emerge and change the entire narrative of the family’s history. Monkey Bridge
is regarded as a significant book in terms of Vietnam War literature and is reflective of the author’s own past as she herself immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in 1975.
Thirteen-year-old Mai reaches the United States in 1975, on the very day Saigon falls, and moves in with Colonel Michael MacMahon, an American soldier, and his family. Mai’s mother, Thanh, arrives in the United States a few months afterward. The reader learns that Thanh’s father, Baba Quan, was also supposed to come to America but did not show up at the place they were supposed to meet. Thanh feels she has never fully recovered from his mysterious disappearance. Mai and Thanh settle just outside Washington, D.C., in a region that is heavily populated by other Vietnamese people. The area is referred to as “Little Saigon.”
Mai assimilates to American life quite quickly and easily. She learns English and begins to pick up on the conventions of American society. Mai is embarrassed, however, at her mother’s inability to adapt to their new lives in the States. This makes Mai feel divided between Vietnamese culture, for which she feels sentimentality and allegiance, and the exciting new American culture. This highlights not only a clash of cultures but also a clash of generations as young Mai adapts with ease, and her more traditional mother seems unable to break out of her cultural conventions. It becomes more challenging for the two to relate to one another.
Soon after they arrive, Mai ascertains that there is something mysterious about the circumstances surrounding her missing father and grandfather. She also notices that her mother seems to be troubled by her past.
Thanh soon becomes hospitalized after having a stroke. She calls out for her father, Baba Quan, while she sleeps. Mai puts her feelings about her mother’s assimilation behind her because her mother is now paralyzed, and Mai must care for her.
Thanh begins to tell Mai about her past, stating that, when she was a poor girl, a rich landlord adopted her, and she was eventually wedded to a handsome and knowledgeable man. It was then that she gave birth to Mai.
Mai becomes very curious about her mother’s acquaintances, including Thanh’s friend, Mrs. Bay, and Uncle Michael, a veteran of the Vietnam War who was a friend of her father’s and took her to America after the fall of Saigon.
Mai discovers letters her mother has been hiding, and they seem to reveal a personal history that is very different from the one Mai knows about her mother. The letters detail how Baba Quan, Thanh’s father, used his wife as a prostitute in order to pay rent to his rich landlord, Uncle Kahn. Uncle Kahn’s wife was not able to have children, and Baba Quan’s wife became impregnated by Uncle Kahn and gave birth to Thanh. Kahn and his wife then adopted Thanh, and she was sent to Catholic boarding school. Ashamed of his actions, Baba Quan became enraged and planned to get revenge on Uncle Kahn by killing him, though he did not succeed.
When the Vietnam War erupted, Baba Quan joined the Vietcong. After his village became a free-fire zone, his family left their homeland and moved to a settlement nearby. Baba Quan, however, stayed with the Vietcong to fight as a rebel.
In the present, Thanh becomes well enough to leave the hospital. Mai and her friend, Bobby, decide to leave for Canada with a plan to call Baba Quan and persuade
him to join them in America. However, Mai has a change of heart out of fear of being deported back to Vietnam. She remembers what her father used to say: “One wrong move…the entire course of a country changed,” which is a reference to the United States’ critical decision to make a commitment to the Vietnam War.
Through the letters, the reader learns that during the transition of Baba Quan’s family to the new settlement, Thanh’s mother passes away. Vietnamese custom dictates that her remains be returned to her homeland for the funeral. When she returns to the village, Thanh watches as Baba Quan murders Uncle Kahn on a riverbank. Panicked, Thanh flees, leaving her mother’s body behind.
Emotionally scarred from not having properly buried her mother, Thanh goes on living in America, though she is never able to become accustomed to American ways of life.