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by Susan Brownmiller Review by Jessica Kuzmier
Vietnam is a country that has haunted the American psyche for decades. The war, with all of its implications and ramifications, has left a scar to many, figuratively and literally. Until 1992, most Americans were not even permitted to travel to the country. When the travel embargo was lifted, author Susan Brownmiller went to this country that has haunted many of her fellow Americans, traveling from Hanoi to Saigon and many points in between. "Seeing Vietnam" is a compilation of those travels.
Brownmiller, best known for her work in treatises such as "Against Our Will", worked as a television newswriter for ABC during the Vietnam War. Although she had not been on location at the time, the specter of the war affected her deeply, leading her to quit the network and eventually to the feminist movement. Vietnam was a country to scorn, a scapegoat. It was easier to hold a grudge against the country than deal with what the war meant to her. But when Travel & Leisure offered her the opportunity to go to the country that she ignored, she took it, leading to an odyssey both her mind, and her psyche.
With photographer Maggie Steber and guide Mr. Kha, the author crisscrosses the land that was had been forbidden just a year earlier. Locations that were nothing more the news stories come alive, with the passage of time to mark and change them, changing the author as well. This was the country that shaped a generation, her generation. Watching what time had done to it, as well as to herself, is one of the main themes of the book.
Brownmiller's travelogue is part history, part meditation, and part pure travel lore. She is able to weave the different elements that comprise her tale relatively seamlessly without breaking tone. She is able to be honest about her reactions to what she sees without coming across as morose, self-pitying or bitter. This is a book that acts as both memorial and travel narrative, and Brownmiller is able to work both elements into her story without disrupting the flow of her yarn. She manages to be informative without being preachy, and respectful and touched by her surroundings while remaining detached enough to keep a wide angle, full scale view of her subject.
Able to weave history into the modern society in which she encounters, Brownmiller brings the tale full circle, whether it is her personal evolution or that of the country she sees. Whether one agrees with her political or social commentary is one of personal opinion, but Brownmiller states her case eloquently and clearly while presenting a travel narrative as a vivid background. As a travelogue, "Seeing Vietnam" is aptly named, for one can come to see the country in a different view. Brownmiller's books succeeds in fulfilling this vision.
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