Themes and Meanings
Robert Olen Butler wrote “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain” as one of a series of fifteen linked stories, each narrated by a different Vietnamese character. Most of them had emigrated to Louisiana as part of the Vietnamese diaspora after the war. Both the title piece and the final story of the collection, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992), carry more thematic weight and complexity within that context than if read independently. For example, those reading the final story in isolation would recognize that Ho’s visit to Versailles invokes the historical event of Ho’s efforts to gain an audience with Woodrow Wilson to lobby for Vietnamese representatives in the French parliament. They could not, however, recognize that the reference simultaneously invokes the setting of the first story in the collection, “Open Arms,” which is narrated by a resident of another Versailles, a modern community outside New Orleans with a large North Vietnamese population. “Open Arms” also analyzes a discussion between a Buddhist narrator and a communist leader, among other parallels. However, the story may also be read on its own; indeed, fourteen of the fifteen stories appeared separately before Butler published them in the collection.
The three subplots of historical narrative, fantasy encounter, and contemporary violence intertwine to make the thematic point that the causes and effects of the Vietnam War extend deep into the past, involve...
(The entire section is 480 words.)