Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter
Fiction: The Romance of Viet Nam
By Renny Christopher, English Department, CSU Stanislaus
With the publication of Danielle Steel's Message from Nam (Dell, 1990), it seems that the Viet Nam war has been thoroughly domesticated. Steel's book is not the first time Viet Nam has appeared in the Romance genre, however Anthony Grey's Saigon (Dell, 1982) and Christie Dickason's Indochine (Bantam, 1987) precede it.
And before you stop reading because you think Romance novels are below consideration, consider this: more people have read Danielle Steel's vision of the Viet Nam war than Philip Caputo's or Tim O'Brien's.
Message from Nam is the story of Paxton Andrews, daughter of an emotionally repressed southern lady, who defies her family to go to college at UC Berkeley in 1964. In Berkeley she falls in love with and lives with Peter, the son of the owner of the fictional San Francisco newspaper The Morning Sun. (In many ways this novel breaks Romance genre conventionsor perhaps the conventions are changing rapidly. Paxton sleeps with three men she's not married to, and she says "Fuck off," a time or two.) Peter finishes law school, and is one month short of his 26th birthday when he's drafted. (Here's this guy, son of a rich and influential man, a lawyer himself, who doesn't want to be drafted, but can't think of a way out of it. Possible, but maddening because it misrepresents the realpoor, uneducated victims of the draft.) Instead of assigning him to the JAG, the army makes him an infantry soldier, and he's killed immediately. This makes Paxton want to go to Viet Nam, so she gets Peter's father to hire her and send her as a correspondent. It's halfway through the novel before she arrives in Viet Nam. She spends two years there, during which time she has an affair with a Captain who's killed, and then with a sergeant who's MIA for the last third of the book. Paxton leaves Viet Nam after two years, is hired by the New York Times, and goes to Paris to cover the peace talks. She goes back to Saigon just before the end, and leaves on the last helicopter on April 29, 1975.
This novel, along with the other two, shows a nostalgia for French colonialism in Southeast Asia (as can be seen by the title alone of Indochine ). In Message from Nam this nostalgia manifests itself in a series of comments about the city of Saigon: "If you squinted, you could almost tell yourself you were in Paris," and "The touch of France was still visible here in the decor, the food, and the menu," (188) and "It had been pretty once, when the French were there..." (p. 205) and "It was easy to believe that this had been a lovely city once, when it was French" (p. 224) and so forth.
The nostalgia for colonialism also manifests itself, in all three books, in the form of mixed-race characters. Oddly, however, the Romance genre constructs its Eurasians with Vietnamese fathers and French mothers, quite the opposite of the usual historical case. In Message from Nam France Tran is the equivalent of the "tragic mulatto" so common in turn of the century American fiction. The girlfriend of an AP correspondent, she is a stereo"#ttiful, ladylike, unassuming, reticent, and not accepted either by the American family of the GI to whom she had been married when he was killed, or by the Vietnamese. Her fears of this lack of acceptance for herself and her mixed-race children lead her to her tragic and unlikely end.
It's fairly easy to take potshots at all the inaccuracies in Message from Nam . Steel, with the huge success of her books, could certainly have hired some poor old ex-army officer living in a retirement home to vet her manuscript, but her research is actually very poor. She has army personnel in Viet Nam "for a standard tour of 13 months" (p. 136). Paxton urges Peter to go to Canada after he's finished basic training, and then claims that someday he'd be able to come home againSteel clearly doesn't understand the difference between draft-dodging and desertion. Paxton flies a military transport from California to Saigon, rather than a commercial airline charter. At a firebase, all the soldiers have .45s.
When Paxton's Captain boyfriend dies, she goes to collect from his effects anything that would indicate he was having an affair with her (he was married). According to the book, the army sent home "everything from his underwear to his postcards..." (p. 274). The book needs this action as a plot device, but in fact, the military censored personal effects sent home, so as not to offend parents and wives. Both the Captain and his sergeant are described as having served 4 tours. Paxton gets caught in a firefight, and she has to take the radio from a wounded, unconscious soldier to call in her own rescue. Somehow the RTO has had "his whole back blown open," (p. 313) but his radio still works.
All of those are serious and annoying factual errors. What's worse, though, are the murkier areas, where Steel is both confused and confusing, and gives some really false pictures of the war.
Steel's notion of a journalist's role seems to have been formed by something other than reading journalists' autobiographies. Paxton wants to go to Viet Nam because, "I want to understand what happened. I want to stop it from happening..." (p. 170). Not only is she a (quite unlikely) activist journalist, but also, nobody in the book shows any understanding of, or interest in trying to understand, the war, at anything other than a tactical level. We never see a single word that Paxton writes from Viet Nam, and none of her activities show her doing anything that would win her an understanding of the war. Further, her mother tells her, "You don't have to go to war"Steel clearly conceptualizes being a correspondent as being a participant in the war. All of the soldiers (with one exception, who changes his mind later) and all of the officers are very friendly and cooperative and chummy with the reporters. And the kill ratio among journalists is just about as high as that among soldiers in this novel.
Worse, Steel has no real conception of geography, politics, or military matters, and she tries to write about them anyway. There are a couple of very confused action scenes, one set at a "firebase" in Nha Trang. There's some sort of daylight battle going on (all the battles Paxton witnesses are in daylight), and a TV crew is covering some sort of"foreward movements," of the US Army vs. the NVA, supported by "planes dropping bombs," and ARVN howitzers in the distance, but the TV crew never leaves the firebase, which is itself being shelled. Don't ask me to figure out that one.
Far worse is the MIA thing. Tony, Paxton's last boyfriend, goes MIA during a big battle near Cu Chi in 1970. The army never gets further information about him. In 1973, when Paxton interviews returning POWs from Hanoi, she runs across people who knew he was a prisoner. She returns to Saigon to try to find him. This section of the book is really confused. Tony was captured in the South, evidently held in the South, and escaped (that has to be in the South), yet somebody who was in the Hanoi Hilton knew him. Worse still, he "had taken two months to come down from his hiding place in the tunnels he had found and used until he reached the outskirts of Saigon..." on April 29, 1975 (p. 415). I'm not sure if Steel is saying he did escape from the North, and made his way South, or what. And if he was hiding outside Saigon for two months, why? Why not just walk right into town?
Further, the book is imbued with racism from the start. Paxton is raised by a black maid named "Queenie" who's described as "the old beloved black mammy" (p. 7) who cares more for the blonde Paxton than for her own children. That racism is carried right over into Viet Nam. As soon as Paxton arrives, the Vietnamese are immediately portrayed as threatening. Her cab driver from Tan Son Nhut is sure she's a prostitute and tries to pick her up. Vietnamese kids "would blow your face off with a grenade just as soon as look at you" (p. 220) and "The VC are amazing little people" (p. 227). Paxton's Captain says, "'They're amazing little folks.' He said it almost with respect and humor" (p. 230).
Now, for all my criticisms of this novel, I don't want to say that it's particularly terrible. Despite its ignorance and inaccuracies of detail, Steel's vision of the Viet Nam war reflects current American attitudes. She seems to have done her research simply by absorbing American prejudices and mythology about the warthat the press was anti-war, that American Viet Nam veterans are heroes, that the Vietnamese are "amazing little folks," treacherous and sneaky, but not full and independent human beings who defeated the US, that there are mysterious MIAs who the Vietnamese failed to list as POWs, that the war was some kind of a mistake, although the novel gives no clue as to what sort of a mistake it might have been.
As far as Romance novels go, Message from Nam is a better book than Indochine, which focuses on Nina, daughter of a French mother and a Vietnamese father, who inherits an opium business and has to learn to run it. That novel partakes of Orientalism of the rampant kindeverything is exotic and mysterious, and merely serves as a backdrop for the heroine, Nina, who behaves much more like a contemporary American woman than a metisse born in Saigon in 1938, although Dickason is a better writer stylistically than Steel, who repeats herself rather too much.
Saigon is the best of the three, although it, too, has a few screamers in it. (My favorite is when Tran Van Kim castrates himself in order to dedicate himself more fully to Ho's revolution.) Despite such over-the-top inauthenticities, Saigon is a thoroughly researched book. In fact, it has a page and a half of acknowledgements at the end. While it is clearly a Romance, it is perhaps better classified as a Historical Romance. It is at least as interested in history and setting as it is in plot and character, and its history is, for the most part, reliable. It's also huge in scope (748 pages), and covers Vietnamese, mixed-race, American, and French characters. It was once scheduled to become a TV miniseries, but development plans fell through.
Indochine and Saigon both place their characters in Viet Nam, and focus on events in that country. They both begin well in advance of the American war, and therefore supply it with some context. In this way they differ totally from Message from Nam, which follows much more closely in the mainstream of American fiction, with conflates Viet Nam the country with the Viet Nam war, so that Viet Nam exists only as a war the U.S. fought, and not as a country at all. In that way, at least, despite their nostalgia for French colonialism, Indochine and Saigon are far superior books. Message from Nam merely takes American mainstream fiction's attitudes toward Viet Nam and transplants them into the Romance genre, thus popularizing those ideas and spreading them to segments of the reading public that may never have read any other book about the war. The last line of the book reveals the usual ethnocentrism of Euro-American views of the war: "But Nam was gone now. A distant memory...a nightmare...a dream. For them, and everyone else, now, it was finally over" (p. 415). Yes, the war is over, but the country still exists, and, for its people, history goes on. It is only Americans and not just Romance writers who can put a period on history and say, there, that's over.
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