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A Bend in the River    by Libby Fischer Hellmann order for
Bend in the River
by Libby Fischer Hellmann
Order:  USA  Can
Red Herrings Press, 2020 (2020)
Softcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

A Bend in the River, by Libby Fischer Hellmann, takes place in Vietnam beginning in 1968 during the Vietnam War, but this book is told from the viewpoints of Vietnamese people who are living through and experiencing the war first hand.

The main characters are two sisters, Tam and Mai, who at the beginning of the book are living in a small village with their parents and five-year-old brother. Although they are Buddhists, they attend a Catholic school and have had a good education. Tam, the older girl, is quiet and studious and is hoping to go to college and study botany, but fourteen-year-old Mai, pretty and vivacious, wants to get married as soon as possible.

While they are washing clothes in the nearby river, they hear gunshots and shouting coming from their village, and when they cautiously approach, keeping hidden in the undergrowth, they watch, horrified, as American troops shoot their parents, young brother, friends and most of the rest of the townspeople, while setting all of the houses on fire. They flee along the riverbank and manage to make their way to Saigon.

We follow the story of these two girls as they join other refugees from the countryside who are trying to survive after losing everything. At first they work together in a small café, but when Mai hears about how much more money she would be able to make working as a bar girl, she leaves her sister behind. They become estranged after Tam berates her for taking a job that she considers little more than prostitution. Tam eventually joins the Viet Cong, while Mai works in a bar that caters to American servicemen.

The two girls' difficulties and experiences while living in the middle of that war make for a fascinating story, and we follow them for several years as they grow up and do what they have to do to survive. All of the characters who interact with and influence them in various ways are fully drawn people, and while there are many who refuse to help the girls, there are others whose warmth and caring shine out. We are made to understand why some of these people hate the Americans and become active in underground rebellion with the Viet Cong, and we learn about the internal strife between the South Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong.

The book brings to life the horrors that ordinary people endured as they lived through that long war while at the same time celebrating the ingenuity required of Tam and Mai as they struggle to survive almost unbearable circumstances. This is an extremely well written book that teaches as it entertains. I found it to be an absorbing book that continued to keep me wondering what would happen next right up to the last pages.

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