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The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars

by Andrew X. Pham. Harmony Books, 2008, $24.95

Andrew X. Pham, born in Saigon in 1967 as Pham Xuan An, is one of the most accomplished Vietnamese-American writers to examine the American war in Vietnam and its impact on the Vietnamese people. In 1999 Pham gave us the memorable Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Journey Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam, a rich, very readable memoir. In it, Pham used a latter-day bicycle journey he took to his homeland as a vehicle to tell his and his family’s intriguing life stories.

Pham fled Vietnam with his family in 1977. He grew up in California, worked hard, went to UCLA and landed a good engineering job. In the mid-1990s, in a burst of rebellion against family pressures to succeed, Pham quit his job. Much to his parents’ displeasure, he set off on a bicycle journey to Mexico, Japan and, finally, his homeland.

Pham chronicled that adventure in his first book, into which he also mixed the stories of his and his family’s life before and after leaving Vietnam. Most riveting were Pham’s brilliant accounts of his father’s time in a postwar Communist reeducation camp and the family’s near-miraculous escape by sea from their homeland.

In his new book, Pham focuses on the eventful life of his father, Thong Van Pham, a story that encompasses the wars and social upheavals that the Vietnamese have endured since the end of World War II. He chooses a risky, but ultimately successful, way to tell that story: a creatively written “autobiography” told in the first person of his father, covering the years 1940-76.

“I did not set out to write my father’s biography. I have not written my father’s memoir,” Andrew Pham notes at the beginning of the book. “I have lent his life stories my words. The perspectives and sentiments within are his.”

Andrew Pham then goes on to use his own words, many of them offered as direct quotes, from stories he has heard from his father. The book flashes back and forth in time. There are rich depictions of his father’s childhood, growing up in an upper-class family in northern Vietnam, then suffering under the French colonial rulers and ultimately losing everything when the Communists take over and the family is forced to flee to the South.

Things don’t get much better there for Pham senior. He is drafted into the South Vietnamese Army, where he has to put up with “corrupt politicians,” “inept brass” and the “seemingly well-intentioned Americans.” Then comes his year of deprivation as a prisoner in the postwar reeducation camp. The story ends a year before the family leaves their homeland for the United States—a story that Pham has promised to tell in the third part of his family trilogy.

Based on the first two books, that one will be well worth waiting for.


Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here