by Linda West
(born Tran Thi Bach Yen Oanh )
The 111 pages of Beyond the Rice Paddies are organized into a series of 3 or 4 page stories. You will keep saying to yourself 'Just one more' until you realize you have read the entire book.
It is a fascinating look into the world of a young girl in Vietnam in the mid-1960's. Tran Thi Bach Yen Oanh (the author, now known as Linda West) lived with her paternal grandmother, the beloved Ba Noi, in the village of Bien Hoa near Saigon.
The vignettes describe the joys (some American chewing gum, a doll with yellow hair, etc.) and hardships (a toilet comprised of two rickety slats over a maggot and fly infested area) of life in that historic place and time.
The war affects the villagers but not always directly. For example, Young Oanh wakes up one day with 'bubbles' over her one side that they determine were caused by a powder that came from a plane. Bodies are left in the market square to be claimed. Her hut has a dugout area so she and her Ba Noi can hide from the bullets when firefights erupt.
The author tells of the joy of the parade as the "giant-sized" American GIs marched into town to go "Beyond the Rice Paddies' and fight the Viet Cong. She then describes the fear and confusion when only a handful of them limp back a few days later, sans the fanfare.
Her mother worked as a 'bargirl' in Saigon and eventually marries an American who takes Oanh and her brother to the US in 1970. The author is now a real estate broker, a mother of three children and lives in Tucson, Arizona.
It's a fascinating yet humbling book that will make you count your blessings and perhaps look at war and the world in a different way.