, Research Paper
The Vietnam War has continued to play itself out in fiction, history books, and autobiographies, but no American writer has captured the essence of the Vietnamese like Robert Olen Butler. Butler captures the lives of a people that managed to beat the odds and survive in a new country. Madison Bell wrote in the Chicago Tribune Butler s achievement is not only to reveal the inner lives of the Vietnamese, but to show, through their eyes, how the rest of us appear from an outside perspective.
Butler accurately describes the tensions felt between and among the Vietnamese community (both in America and native Vietnam) and the effects the war had on its diverse populations. The lines drawn between the Vietnamese themselves–religious, sociopolitical, etc.–play an important role in Butler’s stories, exhibiting his knowledge for the many cultures hidden under the umbrella of nationality. In almost all of the stories, there is a sense of the tensions, for example, between the Buddhist and Catholic traditions in Vietnam help illustrate the country’s still decaying sense of unity among its people. As in the story of Mr. Green, the grandfather tells his granddaughter that when he passes on, she will not be able to pray for him. He told the granddaughter that she was a girl, So it s not possible for you to do it alone. Only a son can oversee the worship of his ancestors. (Butler 19) This statement by the grandfather in itself is enough to make the granddaughter want to prove that she can pray over her ancestors as well as any man could as well as pray for him using the Buddhist traditions as well as the Catholic traditions.
Touching on folklore, threatened tradition, and the general plight of humanity, Butler invites us into the worlds of the Vietnamese people, illustrating that their only commonality in the simple label “Vietnamese,” a word with numerous, and often conflicting, connotations. In the story Open Arms , the practicality that affects the two main characters, Thap and the narrator, is what bonds them as one, but in the end, it is the same practicality that makes them so different. The narrator has accepted the Australian way of life and has adapted well to it. When Thap enters into the story, he feels that they will share this common bond between them because of their shared identity. The narrator believes that he is the true example of what the Vietnamese soldier should be and that Thap was a poor excuse of a Vietnamese soldier. Later in the story, he starts to wonder which one of them had really lost touch with themselves, Thap or himself.
As the narrator in the story of Love sat in the tree contemplating throwing the hog bladder filled with goat pellets, we remember the first line that he said in this story: I once was able to bring fire from the heavens. (Butler 73) We wonder how can a man that could do that, be sitting up in a tree about to throw this concoction over a man s house in order to ward off the man s attention from the narrator s wandering wife. The narrator felt that it was his obligation to eradicate the suitor from his wife s life, as it was his duty to do the same when they were in Vietnam. He does reach a point where he decides enough is enough and let s his wife choose where she wants to be. While the narrator s actions seem to be ludicrous, we see this same pattern of characters choosing their own path in the story of Crickets as well.
Ted experiences several times within the story of Crickets were he has conceded to choose between something that was American and something that was Vietnam in nature, and he chooses the American way of life. In the very beginning of the story, he tells of how he got the name Ted. He says that the people he works with has been calling him that for over a decade and he still doesn t like it, but it s better than being called by his Vietnamese name of Thieu. Just within that acceptance, he has chosen the American way of life to the Vietnamese. Later in the story, Ted tells of his adventure with his son in search of crickets. He thinks that his son is sharing in the memory that he had when he was a boy in finding fighting crickets, but the boy is more concerned with scuffing his new shoes. Ted has finally accepted that his son is an American, and through his own actions, so is he.
Robert Olen Butler s stories undeniably have shown different perspectives of immigration stories through the eyes of the Vietnamese Americans. He also shows that these people have not completely forsaken their Vietnamese identity in order to assimilate into the American population. The characters within their stories have chosen, with their own free will, what they believe is a better way of life for themselves and their families.