#bookreview: Village Teacher

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My Review

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

112 thoughts on “#bookreview: Village Teacher

  1. Elizabeth, thank you so much for reviewing my book! I feel so honored for your taking the time for posting this, including that selection of photos taken in Viet Nam.

    One minor detail: there is some duplication starting with the second paragraph beginning with “My name is …”.

    Liked by 8 people

  2. HI Liz, thank you for this comprehensive review. The points you note about people living through war situations under oppressors of a different culture and conducting a romance, reminded me strongly of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin which I read recently. War is a horror that impacts all people in the most fundamental ways.

    Liked by 6 people

  3. You raise an interesting question about whether fiction serves history or history serves fiction, Liz. I like a novel that shows how history affects the choices and actions that the characters make. I think history has to be the driver, yet the novel may fall flat if the fiction isn’t skillfully interwoven.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. A lovely review, Liz. The book sounds intriguing. I am sure I would love it but I am currently deeply involved in other historical war settings ( War and Peace, and Eileen Chang’s short stories set in war time Shanghai). I must get these books finished before I commit to any others!

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Lovely review! Both the history of Vietnam and it’s educational system is very interesting indeed – especially as both are areas that affect everyone’s life – no one can escape history and everyone has to relate to education whether one has access to it or not. I also find the question about the relation history-fiction very intriguing – and important to think about both for readers and writers.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. Talk about a hook, Liz! Both your review and the author’s comments are marvelous hooks. If the book is anywhere near as fascinating as the information you’ve provided here, it would make an absorbing read (no matter the length). And as others have commented, the photographs are a genius addition to the review. Thank you for this literary invitation!

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Liz, your review is far more than reading the book. It is researched, thoughtful, and skillfully written to portray many aspects of the book- especially those that will draw in as reader, like you. Well done!

    Liked by 3 people

  8. A wonderful review, Liz. Hien Nguyen and I used to follow each other on our photo posts. I guess WP did something to make us unfollowed each other. I’m glad to see him here. He’s a wonderful photographer. It’s great to know he has written this historical novel. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Another great review, Liz. You have given me a great deal to think about with regard to historical novels and non-fiction history. I marvel how fiction writers are able to evolve a story within a historical setting without being influenced by seeing history through the eyes of the present. Kudos to Nguyen Trong Hien.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. What interesting questions about the relationship between history and fiction and how they work together, perhaps differently, in each story. I love historical novels set in countries I’m mostly unfamiliar with and this fits the bill. I find them fascinating and completely immersive. This sounds like a great read, Liz. Thanks for sharing your review and recommendation!

    Liked by 3 people

  11. Liz, this is such a wonderfully written and thoughtful review… and you’ve reintroduced Hien to me. I’ve known his as a great nature photographer and while I have also known he has written a book ~ your summary of the novel and the thought that went into his writing makes me eager to read this piece of work. These are the little pieces of brilliance I love to find, and especially so when it comes from writers I admire (yourself) sharing thoughts about a fascinating individual I also know. Thank you and wish you a wonderful start to the summer season ~ hope your staying cool 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Another lovely review, with thought-provoking questions about how to use historical contexts within a novel–fascinating! It sounds like this novel is structured uniquely, with a love story at the heart of it. I will definitely have to check it out.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Liz, a superlative and detailed review and you’ve sold me on this book! I like how you mention the balance of the historical with the fiction of a book and it seems the author has succeeded with this perfectly. I have recently read a few books set abroad in the past and this is one I look forward to reading. Many thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 3 people

  14. This book sounds fascinating, Liz. I’ll add it to my ever-growing TBR list. Your questions about historical fiction made me stop and think. I write historical fiction, although I’m not yet published. I think it can go either way, depending on what the author wants the reader to take away.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad to hear that you will be adding Village Teacher to your TBR, Janet! I agree that both approaches to writing historical fiction are valid, as long as the writer is clear on which approach he or she wants to follow.

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