Hello, fellow bookworms! Today I’m unveiling Book #4 in the Finding Delight Book Club. My how time flies! If you’re new to this series, I’m reading 12 books and sharing about them with you here. I plan to post 4 times for each book. This month, Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram translated by Andrew X. Pham.
“Come to me, squeeze my hand, know my loneliness,
and give me the love, the strength to prevail
on the perilous road before me.”
Amidst the deadliest portion of the Vietnam War, a young woman, Dang Thuy Tram, leaves her family behind in Hanoi and sets off to work in a field hospital. As a recently trained doctor she is tasked with treating civilians and soldiers alike as fierce guerrilla battles occur day in and day out within the foliage nearby.
For comfort, she writes in her diary. She records her patient encounters, friends who have been killed in the fighting, her longing for a man she calls M., and her dreams.
These wartime recollections were rescued when, at war’s end, American soldiers were burning documents. A Vietnamese translator got hold of Thuy’s diary and proclaimed, “Don’t burn this one, it has fire in it already.”
Breaking protocol, an American officer preserved the diary and kept it for 35 years, eventually delivering it into the hands of Thuy’s mother. It was later published in Vietnam and then translated into English by Andrew X. Pham.
Last Night I Dreamed of Peace is the parting gift from an unlikely heroine, killed at 27. Her voice lives on to help generations to come remember that compassion and dignity can persist in the face of the atrocities of war.
“Half of our heart is filled with red blood, half with black. In our mind there is also a balance between the bright, intelligent and beautiful facets and the dark, negative, and cowardly parts. If I can grasp that in its entirety, then I can achieve tranquility and stability in this life.”
First off, don’t skip the introduction! This bit of text penned by Frances Fitzgerald (author of Fire in the Lake) is excellent and offers insightful observations about the book’s meaning, history and origins. I don’t know a ton about the Vietnam War and the introduction helped to place Thuy’s writing into the larger narrative of world conflicts.
The fact that the book is a diary, the interior monologue of a young woman enduring the realities of war, is what drew me to it. (Anyone else read Anne Frank as a kid and become obsessed with the war diary genre?) And a new doctor, no less! Throughout the book she talks of caring for wounded Viet Cong soldiers below the 17th parallel that divided Vietnam into North and South. Her life is often in danger as the American “enemy” and guerrillas wage war mere paces from her makeshift field hospitals.
There’s also an element of romance to her life’s tale as she followed a man from back home into this service. She talks of “M.” frequently in the pages of the diary. Unfortunately, they have both become so committed to their duties that striking things back up seems nearly impossible. Thuy mourns the loss of what could have been.
Given her proximity to the violent, bloody, gory scenes of war, it’s interesting to note that descriptions of such things are limited. But of course, Thuy is a physician, not a soldier. This means grappling with the aftermath, putting the pieces back together that war tore apart.
In translation, her writing is extremely lyrical. Less an account of what’s happening and more poetic perceptions and ponderings — about the damages of war, firm communist beliefs, relationships with the people she meets in the clinic, and sometimes their deaths too. This style, along with the repetitiveness of Thuy’s thoughts, could definitely be off-putting to some. But at the end of the day, she’s a woman in her 20’s who can’t figure out which dude she’s in love with! She’s the epitome of “in her feelings.” Add war to that emotional hotbox and I think I can excuse the fact that she often wants to discuss pining for men rather than the AK-47 wounds she sewed up earlier that day.
Finally, reading Thuy’s wartime recollections as an American is a thought-provoking exercise in seeing the “enemy” as human. It’s easy to relate to a person when they lay their hopes and fears bare on a page. Reading that she dreamed of peace hopefully serves as a reminder, that death as a result of war is always a tragedy, regardless of sides.
Read this if you’re interested in: the Vietnam War, medical history, women physicians, wartime diaries
Read this if you loved: Home Front Girl by Joan Whelen Morrison, The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh, and When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip
Other works mentioned: Fire in the Lake by Frances Fitzgerald
Keep a lookout for Part 2! It’ll be hitting this site next week.