“War Years” Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on January 6, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1300

The narrator, a young Vietnamese boy living with his parents in San Jose, California, in 1983, has lived in America since his parents escaped Vietnam when he was very young. He spends most of his time when not in school at the grocery store his parents own, where his mother is a shrewd businesswoman. This is sometimes a source of frustration to the narrator as he witnesses his mother haggle prices with the customers and considers the very un-American fare at the grocery store. When he asks why they can’t sell TV dinners and bologna, his mother simply puts him to work.

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One day while at the store, Mrs. Hoa, a refugee who is raising money for the resistance effort against Vietnam’s communist regime, visits the store to ask the narrator’s parents for a donation. The narrator’s mother reminds her that times are difficult and that she doesn’t have money to spare. Mrs. Hoa comments that Mrs. Binh, who owns a different Vietnamese store, is considered a communist sympathizer because she didn’t monetarily support this cause; now people talk of boycotting the woman’s store.

The narrator’s mother calmly redirects the conversation, and when Mrs. Hoa leaves, she proclaims the woman an “idiot.” When the narrator questions this, reminding his mother that Mrs. Hoa is trying to help fight the communists, his mother tiredly emphasizes that the war is over.

Later, the narrator’s mother honestly conveys her feelings about communism, telling him that communists “don’t believe in God and they don’t believe in money” and are therefore evil. His father reflects that communists do believe in taking other people’s money, as is evidenced by the loss of his auto parts store in Vietnam, which no longer has any parts to sell. Unlike Mrs. Hoa, the narrator’s mother believes that trying to fight the communists is a “lost cause” and that supporting those efforts financially is not economically responsible.

His mother has proven her fighting spirit before. When a robber broke into their home and tried to abscond with their money, the narrator’s father dropped to his knees, begging for the gunman not to shoot. His mother, however, screamed at the gunman, ramming him with her shoulder as she ran outside. She knocked him off balance enough that the narrator’s father was able to hurl himself against the man’s back, pushing him outside. Later, she called her husband a coward, claiming that she had saved all their lives.

At church, Mrs. Hoa pointedly locates the narrator’s family and reminds them that they haven’t yet given a donation to her efforts. In response, the narrator’s mother decides that she will follow the woman home to determine where she lives. The narrator decides to ride along with her. On the ride, his mother explains the small profit margin she has on customers’ purchases: five cents for a can of soup, ten cents for a pound of pork, twenty-five cents for ten pounds of rice. Mrs. Hoa’s request for five hundred dollars is an enormous sacrifice of hard-earned money.

On Wednesday of the following week, Mrs. Hoa returns to the store to ask for money. The narrator’s mother grips both sides of the cash register and tells her that she is a thief and an extortionist for trying to make people believe there is still a war they can fight. Mrs. Hoa proclaims to the entire store that the narrator’s mother is just as bad as a communist and that if they continue to shop there, they are helping the Communist Party. Customers shift uneasily as Mrs. Hoa exits the store. The narrator’s mother makes no reference to Mrs. Hoa for the rest of the day, but when they get into the car, she explains that she is going to the woman’s home. The narrator’s presence is required because his mother is convinced that the woman won’t do...

(The entire section contains 1300 words.)

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