Staff Pick: The Girl in the Picture: The Story of Kim Phuc, the Photograph, and the Vietnam War

by Denise Chong

(penguin group)

The first time I saw the photograph, the expression on the naked girl's face brought to life for me the horror of war for civilians. But when a family member recommended that I read The Girl in the Picture, the story behind the famous image revealed much beyond this single moment in war. Kim Phuc was 9 years old in 1972 when she was severely burned by napalm after a misplaced air strike on her village in South Vietnam, and this incident would forever shape her life.

Though she was born in a politically tumultuous time for Vietnam, Phuc's life begins simply. Her mother runs a successful noodle shop, and her parents are able to buy a nice house. Phuc spends her days with her family, busy playing with cousins, until war brings an abrupt end to this carefree existence.

Although Phuc understands nothing of the battles around her, its reality encroaches upon her daily and ultimately leads to a terror she could never have imagined. Severely burned by napalm, Phuc is hospitalized and expected to die. She defies the odds and returns home after long, arduous medical treatments, but she continues to endure nightmares, headaches, sensitivity to heat, and other medical complications for the rest of her life. She finally learns of the famous photograph when journalists visit her for a follow-up story, but she does not understand the implications of being a symbol of war.

Though she is able to hide her scars under clothing, other effects of war can't be hidden. Her mother is forced to close her shop as their town struggles to survive, and the family goes hungry. Communism takes over the country, but Phuc tries to resume a normal life. She looks for solace in her Caodist religion, struggling with physical pain exacerbated by her family's poverty. But finding no solace in Caodism, she turns to Christianity and draws strength from her newfound faith.

When she grows older and moves away from home, men from the Vietnamese government pester her with interviews, shaping her for propaganda. For the public eye, she plays the part of the happy student, aspiring to become a doctor. In reality, she is not pursuing that dream, as the school will not allow her. Her health is deteriorating, she has little money, and the government closes the church where she finds solace.

Life finally begins to look up when opportunities arise to travel abroad — for medical treatment in Germany, a world youth conference in Moscow, and study at the University of Havana. Each time, however, she returns to her secretly painful life in Vietnam. After many years, Phuc's dream to escape the West comes true. In 1992 she and her husband defect to Canada.

Through all the suffering in her life, Phuc maintains a joyful outlook. When asked what she would say to the pilot who dropped the napalm, Phuc responds, "The war is in the past. We cannot change history. War is terrible and I want to stop war, not just in Vietnam but in the world. I want to say to him that we have to do something to build peace."

Canadian writer and economist Denise Chong brings to life the riveting story of Kim Phuc while depicting the history of war in Vietnam, the Communist regime, and their effects on everyday people. Thoroughly researched and keenly written, her book captures the power of the photograph — on Kim Phuc and on the world. Most poignantly, Chong portrays Phuc's inner joy as she faces trial after trial, and it is this joy that ultimately leads Phuc to help others as a UNESCO spokesperson and through her foundation for child victims of war.

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