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Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Biographical Fiction and the Snakes of Vietnam

The Land I Lost by Quang Nhuong Huynh has been read by many an elementary teacher to her students. Probably all accept its stories as gospel truth, because the author really did grow up in the mountains of Vietnam.

Likewise, for many decades teachers have read the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder to their students, assured that what they related must be true because Laura really did grow up where she said she did. Now, however, we know that the Little House books were highly fictionalized, with changes in names, ages, and family relationships of the characters, as well as both lapses and inversions in the chronology. Time compression and composite characters are other typical features of dramatized biography.

We need to recognize The Land I Lost for what it is--novelized dramatized biography. How much of the account is actually based on truth, we can only guess. But we certainly shouldn't go adding the Horse Snake (which can kill by both constriction and venom, and is mesmerised by burning the fat of a certain fish) and the Two Step Snake (which can kill just by breathing on its victim) to our Vietnamese Bestiary, just because both animals play prominent roles in the book. In fact, it appears that almost nothing in the book is zoologically accurate. The book should be filed not under Biography, but Mythology--not that educators have learned anything from The Education of Little Tree.

And yet the ACLU has no problem whatsoever that teachers not only read it as literature during instructional time, but expect their students to actually believe it.

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