THE SACRED WILLOW

Four Generations in the

Life of a Vietnamese Family

By Duong Van Mai Elliott

Oxford. 506 pp. $30

Reviewed by John Balaban

"Birds have nests," runs a Vietnamese proverb, "we have ancestors." The phrase suggests the huge value placed on family in a culture that still buries its dead in the corners of family rice fields, where parents until recently chose their children's spouses, where ancestral spirits are asked for guidance at household altars, where individuals consider parents and family before themselves, where the notion of "me" disappears into "us."

The Vietnamese belief in the importance of family comes through full-force in this marvelously rich book, covering four generations of one family from the Duong clan, from its rise to the status of high-ranking mandarins serving the imperial court to its dispersal among boat people at the end of the Vietnam war. The Sacred Willow is much more than emigrant nostalgia, for this is an unusual family, powerfully involved in the affairs of Vietnamese society for generations, and its story is told with skill. One of 17 children, the author -- a middle daughter from whom not too much was expected -- has absorbed her family's collective history with a novelist's eye for telling detail.

Vietnamese say that no family will suffer ruin for more than three generations, that its fortunes will inevitably turn. In The Sacred Willow, one sees the Duong family rise to distinction six generations ago in a small village along the Red River, a place to which they had fled from internal warfare. Two hundred years later, following several amazing reversals of prestige and wealth, we see the family dispersed again by internal war. Throughout it all, including sharp divisions of ideology, they remain a family loyal to itself and to each other. What Duong Van Mai Elliott sees through her own and through her extended family's eyes will be instructive for Americans, with our shocking divorce rate, our increased sense of individual isolation, our sad old-age homes, and our shaken social values.

The Duong family is first glimpsed in the turmoil of civil war at the end of the 18th century, but the main story begins 150 years ago with Elliott's paternal great-grandfather, Duong Lam, a resourceful mandarin who first fought the French invaders and then served them through the puppet imperial court. A nationalist of strict Confucian rectitude who rose to become a provincial governor of great accomplishment, later ennobled by the Emperor as "Baron of Khanh" and honored by the French with knighthood, he hung their gold medal in his pigsty and for all his life refused to learn French.

His conflicted career characterizes the family into the present generation. The author's father, Duong Thieu Chi, who became the post-World War II governor of the Haiphong area under the French and Emperor Bao Dai, opposed French rule yet was an anti-Communist, though the Communists were the only faction likely to drive out the French. Some of his children became staunch supporters of the Viet Minh and the Communist takeover, while other children were persecuted and imprisoned. Like his father and grandfather before him, Duong Thieu Chi rose to great power and suffered immense reversals of fortune. Barely escaping death at the hands of French, Japanese and Viet Minh forces, he was always sustained by family and ethics. Even when we see him near the end of his life, in a famous wire service photo taken aboard the USS Hancock when he was a refugee from the fall of Saigon and wasted by emphysema, he's elegant in his suit, holding the little hand of a niece as they enter a new world.

This is a big, large-minded book (506 pages, including an index and a bibliography of great use to anyone interested in Vietnam). The book's value goes well beyond its insights into our war in Vietnam, during which the author, as an interviewer for a Rand Corporation study, talked to hundreds of Viet Cong prisoners. (Prepared to find the Viet Cong brutish and hateful, instead she came away from her first interview awed by the prisoner's decency and intelligence). Indeed, it is Mai Elliott's abiding talent for seeing things objectively -- combined with her writerly skills, her deep knowledge of her nation's history, and her immersion in her family's ongoing oral story of itself -- that gives us, in effect, detailed eyewitness accounts of extraordinary things that lie beyond and behind the last war.

These are aspects of history and culture that could never be presented with such immediacy by any foreign writer. The workings of the mandarin system. The Confucian habits that ruled Vietnamese thinking. The famous Imperial exams. The generational and marital conflicts between nghia (duty) and thuong (love). Village life. Spirit worship. French colonial rule. The collapse of the Confucian world order. The rise of the Communists. The repeated failures of Vietnamese leadership aside from the hardline single-mindedness of the Communists (including Elliott's sister Thang). The cruelty of land reform and Party doctrine. The dedication of the early Viet Minh. The barbarous behavior of invading Chinese and Japanese troops during and just after World War II. The impact of American culture as the anti-Communist effort becomes "the American War." All of this is delivered with a close-up immediacy that allows us to enter another world.

The family that Mai Elliott remembers is both typical in its private conflicts and extraordinary in its public service. On her father's side come the literati, the Confucian high moralists, for whom duty and learning are paramount values. On her mother's side are pragmatists and Buddhists. The book can be read as an expression of these often-contrary habits of belief: Its skillful writing is itself a kind of filial piety, while its objective sense of history summons up compassionate insights into the human struggles of family and nation. Fascinating.

John Balaban's "Spring Essence: Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong" will be published in 2000. He teaches at the University of Miami.

CAPTION: The author, Duong Van Mai Elliott (third from right) with members of her family (ca. 1950)