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Customer Review

5.0 out of 5 stars fascinating and well written, 1 Aug. 2011
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This review is from: When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (Paperback)
A fascinating and well written insight into the experience of an intelligent woman from a village in Vietnam caught up in the Vietnam War of the 1960s and early 70s between the Communist/ North Vietnamese on one side and the anti-Communist `Republican'/ South Vietnamese and their American and other allies on the other, a war in which we can possibly say with hindsight that both sides were wrong.

This book was made into a film Heaven and Earth [DVD] [1994] directed by Oliver Stone. The film had neither commercial nor critical success on release but to me is actually one of Stone's best. Ideally see the film first, then read the book. The film changes some details and incidents but preserves the spirit of the book well.

Le Ly grows up in Central Vietnam, a region that has its own culture and identity but was partitioned between North and South Vietnam during the war period.

Her parents remembered the ruthless Japanese occupation in World War 2 and the war between the French colonialists and the Vietnamese Communist guerillas that followed. By the time Le Ly is old enough to understand what is going on the Americans and the South Vietnamese Republic have succeeded the French in fighting against the Vietnamese Communists for control of the country.

Most but not all villagers initially secretly sympathise with the Communists but some have cause to regret that later. It is dangerous to be seen to support either side, but also dangerous not to do so. Although the village is still officially ruled by the South Vietnamese and patrolled from time to time by South Vietnamese and American troops, unofficially Communist guerillas become so powerful and feared that no family may even hold a celebratory meal without Communist permission. Each household has to eat out of doors each day so that they can be seen not to be consuming more than the Communists have authorised.

Le Ly, secretly a young Communist activist, is arrested and harshly punished by the South Vietnamese authorities, and then released. However, the Communists assume her release means she must have betrayed them, and she then suffers at their hands too.

Eventually Le Ly flees her village and finds ways to survive in a city, where she becomes pregnant. Despite her former Communist beliefs she takes to the free enterprise economy and survives by trading, although in the midst of the war her situation remains difficult and dangerous.

Eventually she meets and marries an American soldier much older than herself who takes her to the USA. Le Ly admits she never loved him and married for material advantage and to escape the situation in Vietnam. In our culture many consider marrying without love for money and passport wrong and cynical. However, in the Vietnamese society in which Le Ly grew up, marriage for love was thought a selfish luxury. Life was too hard and precarious for such indulgencies, one has to marry for material advantage.

Some things recounted in this book that the author or others she knew suffered are horrible to think about. However, the descriptions are restrained and do not emphasise the brutality. Even relatively squeamish and sensitive people like me [we legal vampires are much misunderstood!] will probably be OK reading this book.

Although the Americans can be criticised for a good deal, they are not necessarily worse than their opponents. The worst atrocities described (fortunately only briefly) are possibly those committed by their South Korean allies and (in the last period of French colonial rule in the 1950s) by French colonial troops from Morocco.

However, this is not a sombre or depressing book. It has a semi-happy ending and we meet many interesting characters and details along the way, such as the different kinds of ghosts the Vietnamese believe in; or the custom that even upper class Vietnamese wash their own underwear.

Fine book; well worth reading. Even better see the film `Heaven and Earth' first and then read this.
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Location: Buckinghamshire, England

Top Reviewer Ranking: 3,017