Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Dao’s three main stories are tightly interlaced, reflecting the aging narrator’s inability to separate reality and fantasy, past and present. This intertwining of the three strands is reinforced with multiple patterns of imagery. The title of both the story and the book, “a good scent from a strange mountain,” demonstrates Butler’s method. The phrase is a translation of bao son ky huong, the saying of the Hoa Haos, the Buddhist sect to which Dao belongs. The story uses a variety of scents as vehicles for exploring the story’s main themes.

The narration begins and ends with fantasy sequences during which Dao is struck by the sweet smell of sugar on Ho’s hands. The smell presumably is related to the two men’s experience working in the kitchen of Monsieur Escoffier, the chef at the Carlton Hotel in London. The menial work in the European kitchen foreshadows the dismissive treatment Ho will receive from the diplomats at Versailles and, more broadly, that Vietnam will receive from the United States. As Ho remarks to Dao regarding the Americans’ treatment of the Vietnamese, “They had been repressed by colonialists themselves. Did they not know their own history?” The chef’s name, which contains the word “scoff,” extends both this theme and the extensive use of emblematic names in the story.

One of the threads of the conversation Dao fantasizes is Ho’s effort to remember the precise recipe for the glaze fondant....

(The entire section is 505 words.)

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

A Brief History of Twentieth-Century Vietnam
In 1859, France began to make inroads in Southeast Asia, and by the end of the...

(The entire section is 788 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

Point of View
The story is told from the first-person point of view. Dao tells the story so the reader is privy to only his...

(The entire section is 767 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Each narrator in the component stories of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain speaks in the first person. Each volunteers needed...

(The entire section is 268 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

While in popular discussion of immigration many people speak of "assimilation" of immigrants into American culture, specialists in social and...

(The entire section is 1282 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

From decades of political rhetoric, and through countless volumes of the emerging fictions and critiques which make up the American responses...

(The entire section is 643 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

Read The Deuce, Butler’s novel about a half- Asian, half-American boy living in the United States. How does Thanh-Tony’s...

(The entire section is 285 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

When questioned directly about literary influences by Jean W. Ross, Butler states that he has read widely and sees the greatest specific...

(The entire section is 231 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In The Deuce (1989) Butler uses a Vietnamese-American teenager as the narrator telling of his life in an "American family" broken by...

(The entire section is 67 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

Tim O’Brien is another writer of Butler’s generation who served in Vietnam. He has also written a collection of interconnected stories,...

(The entire section is 296 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Beidler, Philip D. Re-Writing America: Vietnam Authors in Their Generation. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991.

Broyard, Anatole. Review of The Alleys of Eden, by Robert Olen Butler. The New York Times, November 11, 1981, 29.

Lohafer, Susan. “Real-World Characters in Fictional Story Worlds: Robert Olen Butler’s ’JFK Secretly Attends Jackie Auction.’” In The Art of Brevity: Excursions in Short Fiction Theory and Analysis, edited by Per Winther et al. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.

Myers, Thomas. Walking Point: American...

(The entire section is 156 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Anderson, Jon, ‘‘Inside Stories,’’ in the Chicago Tribune, March 22, 1992, p. 3.

Barnes &...

(The entire section is 250 words.)