A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain Critical Overview
by Robert Olen Butler

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Critical Overview

(Short Stories for Students)

Even before publication of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, Butler had already established his reputation as a writer of Vietnam fiction. Such categorization displeased the author, who stated, ‘‘Artists get at deeper truths.’’ Some of Butler’s earlier works had also drawn criticism because he told the stories from a point of view that was not his own—that is, he took on the role of a Vietnamese person. Several short stories were even rejected by magazines on these grounds.

With the publication of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain in 1992, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize the following year, Butler silenced his critics. In this collection of fourteen short stories and a novella, critics and readers all agree on the power of Butler’s prose and his haunting evocation of the Vietnamese voice. Most critics favorably commented on Butler’s skillful and caring manipulation of the language. Richard Eder, in his review for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, notes that ‘‘Butler writes essentially, and in a bewitching translation of voice and sympathy, what it means to lose a country, to remember it, and to have the memory begin to grow old. He writes as if it were his loss too.’’ According to Cynthia McCown in America, it is Butler’s ‘‘familiarity with the Vietnamese language [that] gives this work its narrative conviction as Butler takes on the personas of expatriate Vietnamese from an aging bargirl to an Amerasian teen to a 100-year-old man who dreams of his friend Ho Chi Minh.’’ Jon Anderson, writing in the Chicago Tribune, notes further praise for Butler’s work: ‘‘the stories in his new book . . . are so delicately phrased that they sound as if they had been written in Vietnamese and translated.’’

The stories take place in Louisiana, where a large immigrant population settled in the post- Vietnam War years. They all feature a Vietnamese exile as the narrator. Butler brings to life North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese, Buddhists and Catholics, men and women, those who succeed in America and those who suffer. His stories span the gamut of topics, drawing on his narrators’ experiences in Vietnam and during the war, as well as exploring their current lifestyle in Louisiana and their perception of America. The narrators offer a variety of perspectives on the Vietnamese experience. Some stories take place in Vietnam, while others take place in the United States. The stories demonstrate the difficulties that the immigrants have in the new country and explore reasons for these difficulties, such as the language barrier, which can lead to misinterpretations. Although the stories all stand alone, they also draw power from their collection. As Madison Smartt Bell says in the Chicago Tribune, the collection has ‘‘a sort of novelistic unity, enhanced by his [Butler’s] sharp insight into their [the...

(The entire section is 719 words.)