This book broke my heart. It's not the first account I've read of a young woman in war, or in this war, but it's the first diary, and just the idea of keeping a diary in the middle of a war gets to me.
But first a note about how this book came to be, from the cover copy: The American officer who discovered the diary soon after Dr. Tram’s death was under standing orders to destroy all documents without military value. As he was about to toss it into the flames, his Vietnamese translator said to him, “Don’t burn this one. . . . It has fire in it already.” Against regulations the officer preserved the diary and kept it for 35 years.
It was published in 2005 and translated to English by Andrew X. Pham, with an introduction by Pulitzer Prize winner Frances FitzGerald.
Keeping a diary in a war strikes me as the most conscientious and humanizing of gestures, made under the most inhumane circumstances. Just the determination required to maintain the practice with any consistency impresses me, and in Tram's case -- in the rain.
It rained and rained and rained. Rarely on a roof. Mostly the writer, a young doctor fresh out of medical school, was outside on the run, following unending trails of combat-wounded and sick through improvised hospitals staked in the muck of jungle trenches and bunkers. I once tried to keep a diary on a backpacking trip in the rain and I couldn't do it.
Sorrow has seeped far into my heart like the relentless monsoon rain willing itself deep into the earth. . .
We covered the floor with plastic sheets, but the water still came in and flooded the building. Everyone was thoroughly soaked. All day long we collected water dripping from the leaks and tossed it outside. The injured sat shivering, completely soaked. . .
There were nights when I was sound asleep when he crawled quietly into the bamboo brush and bailed water out of the shelter, pail by pail, so that if I had to go into the shelter in the morning, I would not be too cold. Many times he gave me his dry shelter and took the flooded and uncomfortable one. . .
The whole forest has been ripped apart, trees down everywhere, houses leaning askew, walls and roofs nearly gone . . . and tonight it rains . . .
And the writer hasn't the luxury of thinking she'll be home in a few months or in any given amount of time. She's in it for however long the war happens to be or until it kills her. She managed two years of entries before walking into rifle fire while heading down yet another trail (probably in the rain).
The entries are by turns poetic, frank, hopeful, and desperate but never crude. Never! She wrote simply and self-consciously, too self-consciously to ever be crude, which is the most endearing thing about her voice because it makes her sound young.
Between the lines I could see who she had in mind as she wrote: her distant love, her mother, a dear friend, a dying patient, The Party. Communism compelled with all the dogma, conviction, self-righteousness, and guilt of serious religion, in this case sustained by a sincere belief that it was the sole path to salvation.
Twenty-five years immersed in fire and bullets, we are still strong. We will persevere and be courageous and hold our heads high and take the offensive. Blood soaks each of our steps on this road of struggles. Is there any country on earth that has suffered as much as ours? And are there any people who have fought as courageously, persistently, and tirelessly as we have?
I think not.
The last lines written before her death: I yearn deeply for Mom's caring hand. Even the hand of a dear one or that of an acquaintance would be enough. Come to me, squeeze my hand, know my loneliness, and give me the love, the strength to prevail on the perilous road before me.
Call me a mother, which I am (and of a young woman), but it just breaks my heart.