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The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family

3.86  ·  Rating details ·  473 ratings  ·  60 reviews
A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Duong Van Mai Elliott's The Sacred Willow illuminates recent Vietnamese history by weaving together the stories of the lives of four generations of her family. Beginning with her great-grandfather, who rose from rural poverty to become an influential landowner, and continuing to the present, Mai Elliott traces her family's journey through ...more
Paperback, 506 pages
Published April 20th 2000 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published 1999)
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3.86  · 
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 ·  473 ratings  ·  60 reviews

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Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship
This book would make fantastic supplemental reading for a course on Vietnamese history. The author chronicles more than a hundred years of the country’s recent past, using her family’s experiences as a focal point. It begins in the mid 19th century, when several of her male ancestors served as mandarins in a society that revered educational attainments; moves on to French colonialism and Japanese occupation during WWII; then to the Viet Minh struggle for independence, which doesn’t seem to truly ...more
Nov 26, 2008 rated it really liked it
On completion:

ETA: After reading this book you must read about the Quiet War in Laos and the Hmong who fought it: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures

Do you really want to understand the Vietnam War? This book is about a Vietnamese family that lived through it. What is special about this book is that the author saw all sides of the war. In her own family some were on the side of the Viet Minh and others supported the Fre
Sep 02, 2008 rated it it was amazing
one of my favorite books of the last 5 IS long..but its worth it. A fascinating portrait of 4 generations of a Vietnamese family that stretches from the traditional "mandarin" culture of northern Vietnam, thourgh French occupation, the Vietnamese war, the aftermath and to life in the US. It deals with Vietnam War from many sides (as her family was divided physically and ideologically by the war. Mai Elliott writes well, lived much of the story, and conducted extensive interviews in la ...more
Ken Emery
Mar 25, 2013 rated it liked it
I initially decided to read this book before a trip to Vietnam. I struggled with it a bit and found it slow in places, but I did learn quite a bit about Vietnam's history and people from reading The Sacred Willow. I especially enjoyed the last few chapter, perhaps because I read them after my trip to Vietnam and had more context or maybe it it was just a period I was a bit more familiar with than the earlier time periods portrayed in the book. Learning about the history of the country through th ...more
Mar 15, 2013 rated it liked it
At times it can be a bit overbearing and in the beginning it is interesting to learn about the Mandarin system it is a bit dry. However, it certainly builds up when the narrator and the author starts to talk about her own life and the experiences she and her family go through. It is quite a magnum opus of a work, and very disheartening at times. However, the end could be considered happy since family does stick together though thick and thin. I enjoyed reading this for my senior seminar, but the ...more
Mar 31, 2010 added it
I learned more about Vietnam in the first 200 pages of this book than I ever learned in AP History. And PS, the Vietnamese are not hung up on the American war the way Americans are. They won, they moved on, they went through 2 other wars since then.
Feb 05, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, history
Super-slow read, super fascinating.
Mar 29, 2010 rated it it was ok
Very slow and too much information. She would have been better off splitting this into two books - one of her family history and one of her own experiences.
Nigel Kotani
Nov 11, 2017 rated it liked it
This is the story of four generations of the author's Vietnamese family but, let's be straight about this, what's interesting about it to most people is the Vietnam War. I would never have picked up a similar book about, say, four generations of a Burmese family.

I enjoyed the book and was never bored with it, but became somewhat frustrated with it towards the end when she described the fall of Saigon to the Viet Cong. My frustration stemmed from the fact that I found this section of the book utt
Moira Mallison
Mar 02, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The four generations are the author’s own family and is the story of Vietnam’s fight for independence. It’s a fascinating tale, with members of the family on both sides of the war. It’s very balanced and comes through is that while they differed dramatically in the realm of politics, they continued to love and respect each other.

Four stars because the first couple generations are rather slow going, but it picks up with the story of the later generations. The fall of Saigon is as much a page turn
Kathleen (itpdx)
Jul 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
This is an amazing family and modern history of Viet Nam. From the author's great grandfather, an imperial mandarin, to her nieces, nephews and cousins in the Vietnamese diaspora and currently in Viet Nam, she gives us a view of events from her family's experiences. Mai Elliott had a sister and brother-in-law who worked in the north's country-side as agriculture experts under the Viet Minh and a brother who spent four years in re-education camps after reunification. Her father was a governor in ...more
Jan 22, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2018
I knew very little about Vietnam and the conflict in the country. Over 100 years of a single family portrayed thru the eyes of a surviving child. Family split by war and ideology yet once peace finally comes to the country able to reconnect and look forward in their respective lives. Liked knowing what occurred in the country from a perspective of someone who lived in the country and had a rich family history of government involvement. Large family so many aspects of political spectrum were expl ...more
Jill Verenkoff
Apr 27, 2019 rated it liked it
Although edifying in its discussion of the elite Mandarin class in French Colonial Vietnam and the tactics of the revolutionary Viet Minh in the North (and later the Viet Cong), the book drags on and becomes bogged down in too many details, repetitive scenarios and brief accounts of endless relatives. I skimmed much of the book for these reasons. The narrative frequently reads like a school history textbook. Elliott, however, succeeds in fostering empathy and respect for her immediate family, wh ...more
”As my plane took off one fall morning from Hanoi. I looked out of my window and felt a sense of peace and closure. …I had seen Vietnam, the land of two million war dead, become once again the land of the living. And I was taking back with me not the deafening explosions of weapons, but the gentle sound of the monsoon rain.”
It has been six years since I went to Vietnam to build a house with Habitat for Humanity. Vietnam is not a country that I had planned to visit, but the opportunity presented
Wan Peter
Jun 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history-warfare
A recollection of history which I remember strongly. In war nothing is pleasant. An almost forgotten history of French colony, Cochin China and presently Vietnam is embroiled in a territorial dispute with China over the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea.
"Those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it." Philosopher George Santayana Mae Elliot writes intelligently.
Nov 24, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
From the perspectives of four generations, this book is objective and full of personal stories which are representative of the life of all the people.

I found this book objective, providing historical background and viewpoints from different angles. Great read. Recommend to anyone who is interested in knowing about the defining history of Vietnam in 20th century
May 12, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I didn’t finish the book. As I had just completed a month in Vietnam and Cambodia, the book started as an excellent reminder of all that I had seen and experienced. Unfortunately, it was too long and detailed to hold my interest. At about 30%, I gave up. There are too many books and too little time!
Paul Starbuck
Jan 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
Great story - a bit plodding in places but overall very personal and authentic. Incredible how this family stayed together despite war, conflicts, social pressure & changes, and international moves. Recommended!
Dec 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I found this to be a thoroughly researched, well-written, and compelling family history through the last 2 centuries. It’s well told, intertwining personal family stories with historical events.
Mar 05, 2018 rated it liked it
Fascinating family history of a group of people who lived through unusual times. Would recommend to anyone with an interest in Vietnam.
Jul 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
A great history of Vietnam told thru the life of one family. I read and finished it years ago as a prep for a trip to Vietnam with OAT.
Apr 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
Very detailed and helpful background and context for understanding Vietnam. Surprisingly very little emotional affect for something that is a personal narrative.
Michael Connolly
The author describes her upper middle class family and its history of Confucian scholars and government officials. Before the foreigners started arriving, Vietnam was getting along just fine. Vietnam was a Confucian and civilized country, and so there was no justification for it being colonized. However, due to its technological and military weakness, it was at the mercy of more powerful countries such as China, Japan, France and the United States. It was fascinating to read the author's descrip ...more
Mackenzie Findlay
Feb 22, 2017 rated it liked it
I enjoyed this book but it is so long. I think the author could have cut down some of the details about the intricacies of war and still had a great book - or cut it in two? With her life beginning a separate book. But overall, I learned so much and found the story of her family fascinating, particularly having been to Vietnam recently. Would recommend but know you're in for a long book :)
Claudia Zeien
Feb 17, 2017 rated it liked it
I purchased Sacred Willow as a primer for an upcoming trip to Vietnam. I was looking for more of a historical novel, but was not able to find anything appealing in that genre. Many novels are available about the Vietnam war itself, but little available depicting earlier history.

This book is slow going, as difficult to keep all the names of family members and locations straight, but worth the effort. By the time I got to the author's generation I was fully engrossed.

While I was not looking for d
Mar 18, 2016 rated it really liked it
I brought The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family on my trip to Vietnam, hoping it would be something like a Vietnamese version of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China. Duong Van Mai Elliott narrates the history of her family over the last four generations (although she covers her great-grandfather and her grandparents in the first few chapters). The majority of this large book focuses on her parents and her own experiences over the last several decades, during the ...more
♔ Jessica Marie
Apr 12, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: asian
The Sacred Willow is a book about Vietnam and it's history portrayed by the life of one Vietnamese family. Unlike most books about the war in Vietnam, this book offers the views of the Vietnamese themselves instead of the views of foreigners. Another important aspect is the fact that Elliot shows the opinons and values of both the people who support and are against the Viet Minh. This is done by the views of her family and the views of her sister Thang, who leaves to fight for the Viet Minh. Whi ...more
Aug 06, 2011 rated it really liked it
When I first started reading I thought it was a pretty dry retelling of a family's story during the Vietnam war. But that can be forgiven when you consider English is not the author's first language.

The novel gives a real face to how war is hell and opened my eyes to what my family must have survived. Actually while I was reading it I thought, hey, didn't my aunt go to school in DC? Hey, she married a guy named David too! It turned out it is not my aunt who wrote this book, but it certainly hit
Gianna Le
Dec 17, 2008 is currently reading it
I'm reading this book to learn more about Vietnamese history through the lens of a woman tied to generations of political figures who sought to preserve cultural values amidst Chinese, French, Japanese, and American superpowers throughout the past century. My insight to Vietnam's political struggle has been from the jaded experiences my family encountered against the Viet Cong. This book has given me, so far, a humanistic viewpoint on the ideals of Communism within the context of national indepe ...more
Jan 25, 2014 rated it really liked it
A portrait of the author's family (several generations of it) and, more broadly, of 20th century Vietnam. The first third focuses on a changing Vietnam roiled by occupying powers -- France, Japan, China, and the United States -- and the shifting fortunes of the author's family among those changes. The middle of the book is a careful -- at times admiring, at times critical -- look at class divisions in Vietnam and the Viet Minh movement (primarily from the point of view of the author's Mandarin c ...more
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Mai Elliott, a graduate of Georgetown University, was born and raised in Vietnam. Upon graduating from Georgetown, she returned to Saigon, where she worked for the Rand Corporation interviewing Viet Cong prisoners of war and defectors for a research project to determine the morale and motivation of the guerrillas during the Vietnam War. She met her American husband, David Elliott, now a professor ...more