The Mountains Sing
by Que Mai Phan Nguyen

Published: 2020-03-17
Hardcover : 352 pages
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“An epic account of Viet Nam’s painful 20th century history, both vast in scope and intimate in its telling . . . Moving and riveting.” —VIET THANH NGUYEN, author of The Sympathizer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize

With the epic sweep of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko or Yaa Gyasi’s ...
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“An epic account of Viet Nam’s painful 20th century history, both vast in scope and intimate in its telling . . . Moving and riveting.” —VIET THANH NGUYEN, author of The Sympathizer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize

With the epic sweep of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko or Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and the lyrical beauty of Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, The Mountains Sing tells an enveloping, multigenerational tale of the Tr?n family, set against the backdrop of the Vi?t Nam War. Tr?n Di?u Lan, who was born in 1920, was forced to flee her family farm with her six children during the Land Reform as the Communist government rose in the North. Years later in Hà N?i, her young granddaughter, H??ng, comes of age as her parents and uncles head off down the H? Chí Minh Trail to fight in a conflict that tore not just her beloved country, but her family apart.

Vivid, gripping, and steeped in the language and traditions of Vi?t Nam, The Mountains Sing brings to life the human costs of this conflict from the point of view of the Vietnamese people themselves, while showing us the true power of kindness and hope.

The Mountains Sing is celebrated Vietnamese poet Nguy?n Phan Qu? Mai’s first novel in English.

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Fireflies hovered. They looked like burning eyes of devils who’d taken over our world. I blinked, but the darkness was too deep for me to see. I wriggled, but the ropes that tied my hands and legs were too strong. I sobbed but was dried of tears.

How many hours ago did the crowd come back, frightening me with their shouts? But they ignored me, the helpless woman who was roped against the thick trunk of the na tree. They charged into the cattle stalls, taking away our cows, buffaloes, pigs, and chickens. They mobbed the house, carrying away the sofa, chairs, beds, and cabinets. My brother and I had bought those with the sweat of our labor. I studied the mob’s faces. I knew them all: the farmers of my village. Out of our seven workers, only Thông—the person who denounced us—came back. He avoided my eyes.

How many hours ago was a fire lit in our front yard? The mob had cheered, carrying our books outside, tearing them up, feeding them to the blazing flames. Remnants of the feudal system, they’d called my literary treasures. Our village pagoda was burned down, too, columns of smoke twisting up to the sky. Gone was our sacred place of worship.

How many hours ago did I last hear my children’s cries? They were huddled inside the house like animals. Mrs. Tú was with them. Would she abandon us like everyone else?

All afternoon and evening, I remained bound to the tree trunk. To make sure that the children and I couldn’t escape, an armed guard had been stationed at our gate and another at our front door. At first, I’d seen them smoking and heard their curses. But now things had gone quiet. Perhaps they’d fallen asleep.

“M? ?i, cha ?i, anh Hùng ?i, ch? Trinh ?i.” I silently prayed for the

spirits of my mother, father, husband, and sister-in-law to come back

and help rescue Công and Minh.

I was fearful but also very angry with myself. If I hadn’t been so naïve, perhaps we would have had time to escape. If I hadn’t been so involved with the new planting season, perhaps I would’ve learned a thing or two about the secretive plan to punish us.

A cracking sound. I strained my ears. The crunch of dry leaves being crushed underfoot. My heart thumped.

“Di?u Lan.” The soft voice of Mrs. Tú.

“Auntie, I’m here.”

I felt my savior creeping toward me in the dark, then her breath warm against my ear. “Take your children. Leave now.” Tender hands reached for mine. Cold metal brushed against my skin. A pair of scissors released me from the grip of the ropes.

Mrs. Tú pulled me into her. We trembled in each other’s arms.

“Auntie, I can’t leave. Minh and Brother Công . . .”

“Di?u Lan . . .” Hot tears rolled from her eyes onto my face. “Mr. H?i sent us a message. They killed Công. You must leave now. They’ll come for you.”


Mrs. Tú’s hand cupped my mouth. I shook my head. My brother couldn’t be dead. Just this morning, he was right next to me, talking and laughing. He’d never hurt anyone. No one should hurt him.

“Di?u Lan, run away before they find out about Minh. He escaped.”

I gasped. Even in the midst of my grief, I felt a moment of elation.

Mrs. Tú pulled my arm. We crawled over fallen leaves, damp earth, and dew-soaked vegetables. I bumped against low tree branches but kept going.

“Mama’s coming.” “Mama, is that you?” I rejoiced at the sounds of these whispers. My hand felt a half-open door. I eased myself into the kitchen, and, fumbling in darkness, touched the teary faces of Ng?c, ??t, Thu?n, and H?nh. I embraced them, willing them to melt into my body, so that we’d never be apart again.

“Baby Sáng, where’s he?”

“Here. He’s sleeping, Mama,” Ng?c said, and I reached out for the warmth of my son.

“You have to go,” said Mrs. Tú.

“Auntie, but Minh might come back to look for us,” I said.

“He’s run far away, Di?u Lan,” Mrs. Tú whispered into my ear. “Stay here and you’ll die. I beg you.” She turned away from me. “Children, remember what we agreed? Crawl in single file. Hold the ankle of the person in front.”

“Yes, Grandma.”

“The guards are outside. Don’t speak out there.” Mrs. Tú’s hands reached for me. She tied Sáng to my chest with her carrying cloth. “Di?u Lan, lead the children through the secret hole in the back fence to get to my plot of land. Run away from there.”

“Won’t you come with us, Auntie?” My throat tightened.

Her fingers were soft against my tears. “They’ll burn this house without anyone here. They’ll smash the family altar. I need to stay. To guard the graves of your parents.”

“Grandma Tú, Grandma Tú.” The children started to cry.

“Shhh, they’ll hear us.” Mrs. Tú sniffed. “Grandma will see you all again soon. Be strong and help your Mama. Come back to me when it’s safe.”

“But Auntie, how will I find Minh?” I asked.

My savior caressed my face. “Heaven will light the way for you to find each other, Di?u Lan. Try to bear your destiny, my child.” Her hands left me. “??t, you’re the eldest boy now. Take care of your siblings. Keep this food bag safe.”

“Yes, Grandma.” ??t sobbed.

Darkness was our ally as we slithered across the back garden and through the fence. Darkness held us in its mouth as we ran through the rice fields, crossing several streams to get to the next hamlet.

Terrified, we ran. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

1. There are many major historical events featured in the novel. How much did you know about these events before you read The Mountains Sing? Did the story show you a new side to any events you were already familiar with?

2. War stories are often told from a male perspective. In The Mountains Sing, H??ng and Grandma Di?u Lan take turns narrating their stories to us. How might this be a different novel if it had male narrators? Why do you think the author chose to have women and girls tell the story instead?

3. Which character did you feel the most sympathetic towards? The least? Is that different from which character you like the most and least, and why?

4. In addition to descriptions of war and pain, The Mountains Sing features many descriptions of gorgeous landscapes, interesting city sights, and delicious foods. Were there any locations described that you would like to visit? Any foods that you would like to try?

5. In The Mountains Sing, Vietnamese names and words appear with their full diacritical marks. For Vietnamese speakers, these marks are critical to interpreting meaning: for example, the words ma, m?, má, mà, m?, and mã all have separate meanings (ghost, grave, mother, but, young rice plant, and horse, respectively). Nonetheless, it is unusual for an American novel to include the marks. Did their inclusion affect your reading experience? How?

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