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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : Vietnam, Through the Eyes of Those Who Were There : AFTER SORROW: An American Among the Vietnamese by Lady Borton ; Viking $23.95, 303 pages

August 14, 1995|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Saints go directly from A to Z and ignore the alphabet in between. Their imperative is to do what good in the world they can, so Albert Schweitzer gave up his musical career to open his hospital in Africa, and Mother Teresa nurses the destitute and dying. Lady Borton, surely a kind of saint, went to Vietnam.

Borton, an Ohio Quaker who is field director of the American Friends Service Committee in Hanoi, says she sought an equivalent to the "conscientious objector's alternative service" she would have chosen had she been a man and subject to the draft.

In 1969-71, during what Vietnamese call the "American War," she worked in a Quaker hospital in Quang Ngai Province, South Vietnam. "Whatever their politics," she says, "our patients came covered with burns and blood . . . without arms, without legs."

In this sense, Borton was impartial, but she wasn't neutral. She viewed the war as a great evil and committed herself to healing the wounds inflicted by her countrymen. In the foreword to "After Sorrow," novelist and anti-war activist Grace Paley credits Borton with being "the woman who led the first reporters to My Lai," where the U.S. Army had massacred hundreds of civilians in 1968.

In 1975, shepherding Quaker shipments of medical supplies, Borton was one of the few Americans to enter North Vietnam during the war. In 1980, as described in her memoir "Sensing the Enemy," she worked with Vietnamese boat people in refugee camps in Malaysia.

In 1987-93, Borton persuaded the Hanoi government to let her live in peasant communities and collect ordinary people's stories of the war. "After Sorrow" is her account of life in Ban Long Village in the Mekong Delta, site of a 1940 uprising against the French; Khanh Phu Village in the Red River Delta of North Vietnam, and Hanoi itself.

Borton compares her narrative, sprinkled with maps and quotations from classic Vietnamese poets, to food wrapped in layers of banana leaves that must be peeled off one by one.

"Vietnamese peasants," she notes, "share a Confucian background that defines their place in human and spiritual relationships." For a woman, especially, "telling her story as if it had some worth of its own is the epitome of arrogance. That is why [they] asked me to change their names."

The top layer of "After Sorrow" is a detailed, often lyrical description of how Vietnamese live today in a countryside slowly recovering from massive U.S. bombing and defoliation, and in a culture just beginning to be enriched and coarsened by capitalism.

Below that is a seemingly bottomless layer of mourning. Responding to Borton's sincerity and gift for friendship, aging men and women with names such as Last Gust, Second Harvest, Autumn, Senior Uncle and Sixth Rice Field tell of their suffering and losses in 35 years of war, revolution and famine. They tell of prison, torture, husbands and sons killed or missing, crops poisoned and babies deformed by Agent Orange.

Women we at first see only as victims cast aside their modesty and tell stupendous stories--stories they have "never before told. . . . Not to each other. Not to anyone"--of their service in the Viet Cong, which, they say, had 90% support in some areas of the south.

Borton meets an 81-year-old woman--"the Betsy Ross of Vietnam"--who sewed the first national flag in 1940, and tells of a female general who helped capture Saigon in 1975 and took over Gen. William Westmoreland's headquarters.

"[Women] did everything!" says Second Harvest, a former guerrilla leader. "We climbed mountains, we hid under rivers. We captured prisoners. We carried ammunition. . . . We were the guides, we were the spies. Don't you see? This was a citizens' war."

This pride is one reason for the lack of animosity today toward American visitors to Vietnam. Another, Borton says, is Ho Chi Minh's Marxist teaching that the average American was an innocent dupe of the U.S. arms industry. "I didn't have the courage to explain" to the bereaved, she says, "that we . . . were not completely separate from our government."

Oh, she irritates us sometimes, as saints do, this shy and scrupulous Quaker with her gentle, granite certainties. What about the other side of the story--there is another side, isn't there? Borton starts to address such questions, then seems to decide that after all she has told us it would be a waste of time. She is too busy going straight from A to Z, doing what good she can, regretting only that these stories are reaching us "a generation too late."

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