Sunday, November 9, 2014

Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam's Madame Nhu by Monique Brinson Demery

Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam’s Madame Nhu.  Monique Brinson Demery. Public Affairs Publisher. October 2014. 280 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 9781610392815.

The story of Madame Nhu begins with her life as an upcoming bride living in a Vietnam laced with French dominion and influence.  She is about to marry a man who will eventually become the Prime Minister of Vietnam, the man who will wield the real power behind President Ngo Dinh Diem as nations and revolutionary groups vie for power, prestige, and style in Vietnam.  For now Tran Le Xuan, Nhu’s name in her youth), is excited about her marriage and upcoming family status.  But intrigue is omnipresent and Nhu’s life seems like it is unraveling as she initially fails to beget children and her husband seems more entwined with his secret trips and missions than he is with his young bride. 

At the same time, we learn how North Vietnamese leaders are seeking to combine their rising power with French administration.  The French will fall eventually and Tran will learn how the poor and suffering live when she is forced to flee with her family as the Communists from the North approach South Vietnam.  From that point on, Madame Nhu reaches deep inside to let her immense strength confront all obstacles in her path.  The story continues with American advisers coming to court her husband and Diem will take over after a coup.  Madame Nhu’s notoriety grows as she declares her love of power and prestige and comes across as cold and heartless toward the people she is supposed to serve. Indeed the rule of her family and Diem is correctly labeled as repressive, though these rulers always claimed the treatment was to safeguard their people. Her callous remarks about the burning Buddhist monk serve as the vicious, cold benchmark of her future years.  Until her husband and Diem are assassinated, she will court power and use her sexy, slim body and charm to keep South Vietnam free. 

One aspect that is always clear in this account is how mixed the advice and help from the USA was.  American estimation of the rising threat of Ho Chi Minh always seems inaccurate and forthcoming help was the same; the replies of Madame Nhu and the South Vietnam government was partially responsible as they feared a foreign takeover by the Communists, French (again!) or even the Americans if the truth were to be admitted.

Madame Nhu goes into seclusion when she barely manages to escape to America and remains there for over 30 years before her story is told by the author of this account.  In order to gain all the information in this book, the author had to play a cat-and-mouse game with Madame Nhu in which the author would be fed bits and pieces of little known information but never wholesale openness and trust.  Madame Nhu, we learn, had reason to fear the vengeance of many who considered her responsible for thousands of deaths, losses and disasters that befell the Vietnamese people.

The story never loses the sense of intrigue, mystery, and exposure of truth and thus is a superb nonfiction account of a pivotal time in global history that affected the lives of millions to the present day.  Finely crafted account of this very famous lady’s journey through the vicissitudes of Vietnamese and American history!

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