by Denise Chong
An unforgettable photo of a child––running naked, crying, and badly burned by a napalm strike––was not only influential in turning public opinion during the Vietnam war, but kept an enduring legacy as the embodiment of the senselessness and cruelty of war. Kim Phuc was the child, and The Girl in the Picture comprises the lead up to and the immediate aftermath of the bombing that irreversibly changed her life, as well as her experiences afterwards as an unwilling tool of Communist propaganda, a much sought-after news “item,” and a famous woman instrumental in repairing historical rifts left over from a grisly war.
Chong has a great understanding of details that require context for a reader to gain full appreciation of Kim Phuc’s story––such as the history of the region, meanings behind Vietnamese names, and journalism slang––and she presents such things without ruining the flow of the writing. But it’s more than that: The author brings these things up again and again without reminding the reader of the meaning or significance. This not only comes across as a measure of confidence from an author who respects her audience, but it also lends a measure of authenticity to recollections of the time and place. The flip side to this, however, is a habit of reintroducing events long past and only now telling us about significant exchanges, and immediately explaining the implications. I wish Chong would have presented more the first time around with less explanation in order to revisit these moments when Kim Phuc has a better understanding of their importance. This strikes me as a way to both make the book feel like a more cohesive whole and give a sense of greater depth to the text without actually changing any of the facts. That said, I don’t begrudge the author to relay her understanding of Kim Phuc’s story with a straightforwardness, a bluntness, that leaves little room for people to twist her message.
And take that opinion for what little it matters: that I may have better appreciated Chong’s book if she had taken a slightly different approach in the writing. The Girl in the Picture is still an important reminder of the horrors that both war and those with power inflict on the innocent. We can all learn from Kim Phuc, that the past is done, and we mustn’t dwell on it, but that remembering it will help us understand how to build a better future.