Village Teacher is a historical novel by Neihtn (Nguyen Trong Hien) set in Vietnam during French occupation at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. The novel opens with the protagonist, a teacher/scholar named Tam, leaving the building where he has just taken a national examination that will determine his future. His final essay? A discussion of reforms needed to bring the country’s educational system into the modern age. For me as a reader, opening hooks don’t get much better than this!
I felt immediately drawn to Tam. He is a brilliant scholar, yet genuinely humble and self-effacing. He stands ready to help those in need, including a young woman set upon by thugs as he walks back to the inn where he is staying. This incident sets in motion the love story that will become the heart of the book, as Tam and the young woman, Giang, face obstacle after obstacle to being together, most triggered by their living in a country under foreign occupation. I found this love story particularly well-done, with a subtlety and nuance I greatly appreciated.
The plot is quite complex, with machinations from a variety antagonists. For me, this complexity is a clear representation of the difficulty of surviving in a traditionally hierarchical society under a system of governance imposed by foreign occupiers while trying to hold onto your own culture and as much of your system of governance as your foreign occupiers will allow–not to mention dealing with heavily-armed rebel factions. Village Teacher brought home the full extent of these complexities in a way I hadn’t previously encountered.
An important question Village Teacher raises in my mind is the balance between history and fiction in a historical novel. Is the author’s primary goal to fictionalize a historical event (or time period) to bring history alive for readers–with the fiction serving the history–or is it the other way around? Is the author’s goal to provide the historical context needed for readers to fully understand the characters’ motivations and experience in the world, with the history serving the fiction? While Village Teacher has a relatively high percentage of history to fiction, I found it entirely necessary to the story (in addition to being intrinsically interesting). The author made a good decision to use an omniscient narrator to relay the exposition and not put it in the mouths of the characters, which can sometimes happen in historical novels.
For a novel coming in at over 400 pages, Village Teacher was a surprisingly quick read; I finished it much sooner than I expected. I was also surprised by how I felt at the end. While the ending was satisfying, with no loose ends, I was reluctant to leave these characters behind. I had come to care about them that much.
The Author in His Own Words
My name is Nguyễn Trọng Hiền in Vietnamese. Living in the United States, I am known as Hien Nguyen, or Hien T. Nguyen. neihtn is the name of my email account on Yahoo mail. It is my Vietnamese first name (Hien) and initials, spelled backward. Why backward? One reason is to indicate that I now live on the opposite side of the world from where I was born and spent over two decades of my life.
Do I write for a living? No, writing is something that I have wanted to do for almost all my life, but I used to have a “regular” job. It took me almost four years to write Village Teacher at night and on weekends. I am now retired and intend to spend much of my time writing.
I am also an amateur photographer. I like to take pictures of birds, wildlife, flowers and landscapes. I now blog and post photos at least once a week.
Village Teacher Genesis
The following information is excerpted from Village Teacher: Genesis.
Village Teacher is my first novel. I started it in 2008 and finally published it in May 2012. [It took that long because, for most of the time, I could only write or do research in the evening and on weekends.
Why did I write? One reason was because the examinations system in Việt Nam, even in its modern forms, had always been such a large part of everyone’s life, including those who never took part in any examination.
Many years ago, I read Lều Chõng [Tents and Pallets], a novel written by Ngô Tất Tố in 1952. In it, the author described how the main character took part in one of the last examinations under the Nguyễn dynasty at the beginning of the 20th century. I thought the ending of that novel was rushed, as if the author ran out of time and had to hurry to meet some publishing deadline.
When I started Village Teacher, I noticed on my bookshelves a copy of Vietnam and the Chinese Model by Alexander Barton Woodside in which there were several chapters that dealt with the examinations system. Subsequently, I also found works by Nguyễn Thị Chân Quỳnh, Khoa cử Việt-Nam in two volumes published in 2002 and 2007. They described in even more minute details the organization of the mandarinate examinations and the more salient historical events and characters that took part in them.
With such background materials, I decided to write Village Teacher keeping modern and younger readers in mind, especially the young Vietnamese who, after 1975, either lived or were born in Western countries where their parents fled after the collapse of South Việt Nam. It’s my way of introducing them to a little bit of Việt Nam’s history and culture. Hopefully, more than 100 years after the last mandarinate examinations were held in Huế, this book will allow them an interesting look at a way of life that even their parents or grandparents may only be vaguely familiar with.
Through the Author’s Lens
Hien is an accomplished amateur photographer. I compiled this slideshow using photographs he took on a trip to Vietnam. I chose the ones that most reminded me of reading Village Teacher. Click here to see the full gallery of captioned photographs on his blog.