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The Story of Viet Nam: From Prehistory to the Present.

The Story of Viet Nam: From Prehistory to the Present. By Shelton Woods. Ann Arbor: Association of Asian Studies, 2013. 96 pp.

Shelton Woods' concise history textbook, The Story of Viet Nam, brings readers from the prehistory of Viet Nam to the present, ending in the 1990s. His volume offers snapshots of the major events in Vietnamese history. Its brevity and the author's style of writing is appropriate for American high schoolers or non-specialist college students interested in the history of Viet Nam. However, it does not reflect the latest developments in scholarship on Vietnam, making it inappropriate for a college class on Vietnamese history.

Woods' short history of Viet Nam achieves much in some eighty pages: it highlights the major political developments of Viet Nam's nearly 4,000 years of history, while introducing important facets of Vietnamese culture. The strength of its narrative lies in his treatment of post-1945 Vietnamese history. Woods has a nuanced understanding of the Viet Nam wars (1945-75), whereby he highlights the complexities of anti-colonial struggle and competing visions of Vietnameseness against the backdrop of Cold War politics. It is also significant that he continues beyond 1975, fostering understanding of Viet Nam as a country, not a war. This understanding is further fostered through Woods's snippets on Vietnamese culture--on, for instance, the importance of Buddhism.

His style of writing also attempts to engage with an American audience. In describing the size of Vietnam, he describes it as "slightly smaller than New Mexico" (p. 5). He also uses metaphors like "[a]s at the beginning of a sporting event, most people are supportive and enthusiastic at the outset of a war" (p. 46). While I do not personally find these comparisons and metaphors useful, they might be engaging for its intended audience.

I would not recommend this text for use in a specialist class on Vietnamese history. Its brevity has its limitations. For example, Woods' history of Viet Nam is ethnic-Vietnamese (kinh) centric. There is little room in his narrative for the Chams in the fourteenth century, or the montagnards during the Viet Nam wars. Its narrative is a limited one.

More importantly, the author of The Story of Viet Nam has failed to keep up to date with the latest scholarly developments in Vietnamese history. A majority of his references are from works written prior to 2000. For instance, George Dutton's 2006 monograph on the Tay Son would have made Woods' text less kinh centric, and led to the inclusion of alternative narratives addressing regional differences in Vietnamese history. This approach would, in turn, have deepened his analysis of the Second Viet Nam War, and given historical context to the development of new religions like the Cao Dai in southern Viet Nam (p. 45).

While this is a minor point, there are many errors in the Vietnamese diacritics in The Story of Viet Nam, and the text uses the Wade-Giles system of romanization from Chinese despite the change of academic convention to the pinyin system. On page 9, there are at least three errors: Van Lang, An Duong, and Co Loa, which should have been Van Lang, An Duong, and Co Loa. A mixed use of the pinyin Shihuangdi, and the Wade-Giles Chao-T'o on the same page (p. 10) is also slightly confusing. Such minor errors plague the text, which would benefit from more polish.

DOI: 10.1355/sj29-3p

Mei Feng Mok

Department of History, University of Washington, 315 Smith Box 353560, Seattle, Washington 98195-3560, USA; email:
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Author:Mok, Mei Feng
Publication:SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2014
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