A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain Characters
by Robert Olen Butler

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A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain Characters

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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Among the fifteen stories in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, Butler uses eight male narrators, and seven female narrators. Most narrators are middle-aged or older, but the narrator of "Letters from My Father" is a teenage girl looking through letters her American father had written during his years of trying to get his wife and daughter out of Vietnam. A male narrator's military experience is salient in "Open Arms," "In the Clearing," and in "Love," in which the protagonist who once could "call fire from the sky" on rivals for his wife's attention is reduced to attempting a bit of Louisiana voodoo, which involves a minor splash of goat manure potion he hurls from a tree near the rival's house.

Most narrators are aware of "alienation," of being "different" from others. The narrator of "A Ghost Story" expects the reader, on seeing him board the bus to visit his daughter in Biloxi, would see him as "a late middle-aged sort of shabby Oriental man" and would have to be told that he was Vietnamese in particular. The jealous husband in "Love" is conscious of being smaller than other Vietnamese men, and of having mannerisms that Americans associate with "a wimp." The woman narrator of "Preparation," asked to do her longtime friend's hair styling and makeup one last time at the funeral parlor, reminisces about her lifelong sense of being less attractive than the departed. Even within the scope of "best friends," of sharing the same ethnic origins and very similar life experiences, the surviving woman notes the signs of the decedent's secret losses to disease and her own perpetual but subtle alienation from her more beautiful companion, who so readily attracted and married the man that each of them had deeply loved. The protagonist of "Snow" works in a Chinese restaurant, not a Vietnamese restaurant; The Plantation Hunan is an old Southern manse, full of antiques, including an grandfather clock. Its sheer size impresses her: "Time isn't as important as that in Vietnam." She is surprised to find that Mr. Cohen does not observe Christmas: "I thought all Americans celebrated Christmas." Being a Buddhist, she is surprised yet pleased to meet another non-Christian in a region often termed "The Bible Belt." A single woman whose fiancé was killed in combat years before, she is very conscious of being unmarried in a community that highly values both the nuclear and the extended family, and she is happy to find Mr. Cohen does not take his Chinese food home to a wife.

With individual histories and individual aspects of desire, loss and gain made clear in each story, Butler draws the reader into awareness of a group of people who can be portrayed historically and sociologically as an ethnic minority in the United States, still in the difficult process of acculturating, learning to connect with the larger society. Still, since the reader meets each narrator as an individual, the fictive fate of each holds the reader in a distinct world with a unique personality in focus. Thus, while each is a member of "the Vietnamese-American community" and shares various characteristics with others of the group, each is still very much a separate person in his or her own right.


(Short Stories for Students)

Dao is the narrator of the story. Nearly 100 years old, he has lived in many places outside his native Vietnam: London, Paris, and now New Orleans. Dao was in Vietnam during the war, and though it is not explicitly stated, must have fled the country after the fall of South Vietnam to the communists. He is living his final years with his family.

While in Paris many decades ago, Dao became a Hoa Hao Buddhist, and thus he values ‘‘harmony among all living things, especially the members of a Vietnamese family.’’ Dao comes to understand that his son-in-law and grandson are involved with the assassination of a fellow immigrant who supported acceptance of the idea of communist rule in Vietnam. Through his discussions with Ho, Dao, who ‘‘has never done a political thing,’’...

(The entire section is 1,281 words.)