Tragic Mountains

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Among the more than one million refugees from Southeast Asia who have settled in the United States since 1975 are some 120,000 Hmong. Their colorful textiles and their folkways have prompted many features in magazines and newspapers, but until the publication of Jane Hamilton-Merritt’s book they have been consigned to the periphery of the ongoing debate concerning the role of the United States in Southeast Asia after World War II.

Like the Kurds in the Middle East, the Hmong are a proudly independent people with a distinctive linguistic and cultural identity but without a nation-state. The ancestral homeland of the Hmong lies in south China, where many Hmong (called Miao by the Chinese) still live. Others, unwilling to submit to Chinese efforts to ban their language and destroy their culture, fled in the eighteenth century to Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Most of Hamilton-Merritt’s narrative focuses on American involvement with the Hmong in the 1960’s and 1970’s. (In early chapters she sketches the background: the French colonial period, the rise of Communism in Indochina, and the beginnings of American involvement in the 1950’s.) The United States supplied the Hmong and provided extensive air support to carry out an undeclared war against the Communists in Laos. When U.S. troops withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, the Hmong were also abandoned, left vulnerable to genocidal reprisals.

Hamilton-Merritt is unsparing in her account both of Communist brutalities (including the chemical-biological toxin war against the Hmong between 1975 and 1991) and of American betrayal. Herheroes are the brave Hmong who fought to preserve their way of life. The text is supplemented by maps, photographs, appendices, notes, a glossary, and an index.