Snow’s Kitchen by Amy M. Le

Snow’s Kitchen: A Novella and Cookbook (Quill Hawk Publishing, 262 pp. $34.99) is Amy Le’s delightful wrap-up of a trilogy of autobiographical fictional tales telling the story of her family’s escape from Vietnam after the end of the American war and the challenges they faced resettling in the United States. Snow is Amy’s mother’s name, which explains the intriguing title of her debut novel, Snow in Vietnam. That first novel tells the story of her mother’s difficult life in Vietnam and the harrowing escape she made with Amy, who is called Dolly, and a young nephew.

The second novel, Snow in Seattle, begins in 1980, six months after the end of the first one. Snow in Seattle finds the small family dealing with the Pacific Northwest weather, American TV shows, and the idea of always-plentiful food. Seeing our country through the eyes of these new arrivals allow American readers to see ourselves in new ways.

Amy Le says she wrote Snow’s Kitchen in one month. I can believe it because of the natural flow of the story as it unfolds. She’s not sitting down at her writing table trying to make things up; rather, she’s relating things as she mostly recalls them. Le wrote the first two novels as a way of honoring her mother, who died of cancer in 2017. This work is intended to honor her mother’s love for food by sharing her recipes, which drew from cultures of the East and West.

In this book Amy, now going by the name “Christine,” moves through adolescence. Here are the book’s first two sentences: “The first boy I ever kissed was named Dung. Let that marinate for a second.”

Her mother has remarried and the family has moved to California. Her mom delightfully pronounces “ugly” in three syllables, “uh-guh-lee,” and once when excited she exclaimed, “Oh. My. Good. Nest!”

But all is not well in Christine’s teen life. She succumbs to peer pressure and her mother wants her to improve her “broken Vietnamese.” But the most serious issue is her relationship with the new stepfather.

Amy Le

He barges into her bedroom without knocking, reads her diary, and calls her vile names. “I hated being Vietnamese then,” she writes. “Our society was built upon the stupid, patriarchal, male-chauvinistic belief that the man was in charge. A woman’s role was to be obedient, subservient, and cater to her husband. I denounced my ethnicity, my Vietnamese name, my language, and everything that was associated with the culture.

“In feeling that way, I also inadvertently denounced everything that Mama represented, everything that she was, and I hurt her more than I understood.”

Amy Le maintains a consistent voice in all three books, as she continues to show her mastery of realistic dialogue. To get the most from this book I recommend first reading the first two in order. All three are great to share with family members and very much suitable for book clubs.

As a bonus, Le includes more than 100 pages of recipes with photographs.

Amy Le’s website is amy-m-le.com

–Bill McCloud

Snow in Vietnam by Amy M. Le

Snow in Vietnam (Mercury West Publishing, 229 pp. $26.99, hardcover; 16.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is a debut novel by Amy M. Le. The author was born in Vietnam and immigrated to the United States at the age of five. She now considers both the Pacific Northwest and Oklahoma to be her homes. 

I love the title, even if it is somewhat gimmicky. I also loved the novel. “Snow” is the name of the main character, a woman who is the youngest of seven children. Within the family she is called “Eight” because her parents are “One.” In May 1973 she is a 34-year-old virgin living with her family in Vinh Binh Province in the Mekong Delta, and is about to marry a Vietnamese man she hardly knows. She’s a former schoolteacher who now works for a bank. The Paris Peace Treaty has been signed, bringing hope that normalcy will come to Vietnam.

She marries and gives birth to a daughter a year later. Shortly afterward she learns that her husband has been living another life with another woman. It’s a deceit that Snow refers to as “a Nixonian blow.” With her life falling apart, she strikes out with her daughter in a bold move of independence. Before long, though, she returns to the home of her parents and siblings.

By early 1975 communist troops, which Le refers to as the “northern army,” are moving on Saigon and pretty quickly the city falls. As the communists gain control over all of the former South Vietnam western books and clothes are burned and families are encouraged to spy on their neighbors. By the end of 1976 Snow has missed three opportunities to escape this oppressive society—in which, she notes, even the sunlight seems to shine differently—and flee to the U.S.A. She saves money for years to try to buy freedom for herself and her young daughter.

But time marches on. Her child seems to be suffering from a serious heart condition. There are fears of a war with Cambodia and China. She wants to be able to give her daughter the life that she used to dream of for herself. With 1977 coming to a close, any possible escape still seems “light years away.”

Then in early 1979 she seizes what may be her last opportunity and faces the dangers involved in getting herself, her daughter, and a nephew onto a small fishing boat with forty other people. There’s no turning back as the boat sails into the South China Sea.

The final chapters continue Snow’s story, telling of storms, pirates, and many months in Indonesia before receiving the news she has waited years to hear.

This novel is dedicated to “the boat people of Vietnam and the refugees who left Vietnam after the fall of Saigon.” Le wrote it as a tribute to her late mother’s bravery and selflessness.

Amy Le should be pleased with her work and know that her mother’s memory has been well served.

The author’s website is amy-m-le.com

–Bill McCloud