“The Girl in the Picture” is a non-fictitious biography of a Vietnamese war casualty by a China-based Canadian writer, Denise Chong. It was published in 2001. It is a story behind the famous picture captured during the Vietnam War in 1972. It was Kim Phuc who was severely burnt in napalm strike, running naked and stretch-armed from her blazing village. The horror and pain expressed in the picture of a burning 9-year-old girl caused a shift in public opinion against the Vietnam War.
Chong is a non-fiction writer whose famous books received many awards, including 2000 Governor General’s Literary Award won by “The Girl in the Picture”. She has degrees in Economics and Public Policy.
Chong gives an overview of Kim Phuc’s life before and after the horrible napalm attack in Trang Bang, South Vietnam. Struggles of Kim and her large family after the war, portray starvation in war-torn countries. She recounts Kim’s experience to history of America’s shameful war.
Kim’s picture was among the best three pictures of the 20st century. She is claimed to be the Vietnam war worst casualty. Her adversity didn’t ban her from feeling strength, beauty and forgiveness regardless of the pain, terrible scars, diabetes and asthma that tailed napalm burns.
Phan Thi Kim Phuc was born in 1963 on Nu and Tung in Trang Bang, South Vietnam. She was 9, when the war between Communist North Vietnam and US-backed South Vietnam broke out. On 8th July, 1972, shelling and napalm strikes were misplaced out of government war zone barriers. Kim was burnt by the deadly napalm and her two brothers were killed. Nick Ut, a journalist from the Associated Press, captured the famous picture and took her to the nearest hospital in Cu Chi.
As an excuse for napalm strike, militarily, when one side mistakenly kills their own soldiers or civilians, they are called ‘friendly casualties’. So Kim was caught in a ‘friendly fire’. Napalm (combination of naphthenic and palmitic acids) sticks to whatever on which it is spread. It burns at 800 to 1200 degree Celsius and for long time. In twenty-four months, through seventeen operations of surgery and painful compressed skin, Kim was able to go back home, and to school.
Kim’s family, after losing everything in the war, faced abysmal poverty when their survival pillar, noodle eatery, was abducted by the communist authorities. Poverty, pain and despair was unbearable to Kim. She only found solace in Christianity and prayers, which she says, helped her cope with bitterness and pain. Essentially, Kim’s entire generation grew into adults knowing only terror, death, manipulation, distrust and self- imposed silence. In communist regime, remaining silent was a matter of self-preservation.
Neither her future nor her family’s was imperceptible in that chaotic communist regime. Ho Chi Minh city authorities were making money out of her through interviews with journalists from across the world. Later, after communist authorities jeopardized her studies and dreams to become a doctor and used her for propaganda purposes instead, she luckily left Vietnam. In 1986, she got a scholarship to study English in Havana university, Cuba, where she met and married Toan.
Cuba was the best place for Kim until Fidel Castro’s revolution reversed everything. Her health (asthma and diabetes) problems coincided with terrible economic collapse in Cuba. As the girl in the famous picture, escorts from Vietnamese government followed her constantly. She always longed and prayed for her freedom. In September, 1992, Kim and Toan managed to escape to Canada where they currently live with their son Thomas.
The book is mainly about Kim’s life. There are, however, so much more than that. Chong focuses on the Vietnam War from the perspective of Vietnam. She portrays a link between Kim’s life and Vietnamese society, during and after the war. She shed light on themes such as futility and horror of war, and the effects of war on countries, communities, families and individuals.
Chong portrays characters in an unbiased way. She regards whether it is harsh and cruel roles in the book. As for Kim’s character, Chong is as optimistic as possible. Her heavyhearted feelings due to the constant pain and headaches she endured from the burns, were so despicable. Chong tries recount Kim’s adversities and present her as a hopeful survivor who forgave a pilot who dropped napalm on Trag Bang.
Wars can be ended, if forgiveness, patience, reconciliation and optimism are socially engaged. For those who want to understand and gain insights into history through a fascinating story of Kim, this is a good read. Kim’s story crosses all borders and cultures to understanding the advantages of optimism, no matter what horrors are ravaging the nations at the time.
Chong uses descriptive language that captures the reader’s attention, though, there are some grammatical and typographic errors. Occasionally, the sequence of sentences and ideas is confusing. I sometimes had to read a passage more than twice to get a gist. She uses technical and archaic terms that are hard to understand.
The book is so informative and enlightening. I recommend this book to those who want to understand the history of the Vietnam War and its impacts on Vietnamese society, and those who want to know the hardships that come with surviving a brutal war.