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

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

by Denise Chong

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On June 8, 1972, nine-year-old Kim Phuc, severely burned by napalm, ran from her blazing village in South Vietnam and into the eye of history. Her photograph-one of the most unforgettable images of the twentieth century-was seen around the world and helped turn public opinion against the Vietnam War.

This book is the story of how that photograph came to be-and the


On June 8, 1972, nine-year-old Kim Phuc, severely burned by napalm, ran from her blazing village in South Vietnam and into the eye of history. Her photograph-one of the most unforgettable images of the twentieth century-was seen around the world and helped turn public opinion against the Vietnam War.

This book is the story of how that photograph came to be-and the story of what happened to that girl after the camera shutter closed. Award-winning biographer Denise Chong's portrait of Kim Phuc-who eventually defected to Canada and is now a UNESCO spokesperson-is a rare look at the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese point-of-view and one of the only books to describe everyday life in the wake of this war and to probe its lingering effects on all its participants.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An extraordinary piece of journalism." —The Baltimore Sun

"More than any other Vietnam book in recent years, The Girl in the Picture confronts us with the ceaseless, ever-compounding casualties of modern warfare." —The San Francisco Chronicle

Baltimore Sun
An extraordinary piece of journalism.
San Francisco Chronicle
...it is a book that everyone should read, especially those who think the war ends on the day hostilities cease.
...Chong deserves praise for achieving something that few journalists have even attempted: In telling Phuc's tale, she has created a dramatic tableau of daily village life during and after the war.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
All you have to do is say "the girl in the picture" and any American who was politically aware during the Vietnam War will conjure up the image of a little Vietnamese girl running down the road, her naked body scorched by napalm, her face contorted in pain. That photograph, taken of a girl named Kim Phuc on June 8, 1972, by Nick Ut of the Associated Press, remains a haunting image of the American war in Vietnam. Canadian writer Chong (The Concubine's Children) now tells Phuc's story in this instructive authorized biography. Tracing Phuc's life both before and after she was nearly killed (at age nine) by a South Vietnamese air force napalm strike gone wrong, Chong unblinkingly presents graphic depictions of the horrors that the war visited on innocent civilians. She finds, however, amidst these tragedies, a redemptive story in Phuc's life, which, thankfully, has a happy ending. Through the heroic efforts of Nick Ut, British correspondent Christopher Wain and others, the girl was taken to an excellent hospital in Saigon. Through 17 operations (in 24 months), an international team of doctors saved her life. Later, after communist authorities mercilessly used her for propaganda purposes, she fled Vietnam. Today, she and her husband are Christians, living in Ontario with their two sons. Although Phuc's entire back remains deeply scarred (keeping her in near constant pain), she works as an unpaid goodwill ambassador for UNESCO and runs her own foundation for child victims of war. Chong's biography, though overly detailed at times, is a well-rendered and affecting life story. 8 pages of b&w photos. (Aug.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
The horrors suffered by villagers during the Vietnam War were encapsulated in the unforgettable, Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of nine-year-old Kim Phuc running naked and screaming in agony from a blast of napalm dropped by a South Vietnamese fighter plane. Chong (The Concubine's Children) presents the story of Phuc's miraculous recovery and the memorable life of the war victim always to be remembered as "the girl in the picture." Phuc's spent 13 months recovering from third-degree burns that covered 35 percent of her body. She later became a good student, but her dream of becoming a doctor was never realized because of the celebrity status given to her by the victorious Communists. Prime Minister Dong treated Phuc like a granddaughter, allowing her to attend the University of Havana in Cuba, far away from the demands of the Vietnamese government. Phuc realized that Cuba, which had fallen on economic hard times once its economic sponsor, the Soviet Union pulled out, offered no promise of a future. In 1992, she escape to Canada,d two sons. An important story vividly retold; highly recommended for all public libraries.
Megan Harlan
Moving beyond the frame of that powerful photo, Chong deftly shifts focus between its personal and political impact.
Entertainment Weekly
Katherine S. Newman
For anyone unacquainted with the details of the Vietnam War and its aftermath. The Girl in the Picture provides an absorbing, if skewed, history lesson. The famous photo and Phuc's story are a metaphor for the senselessness of the Vietnam War. Looking at the image years later, Phuc reflected that she ''didn't know how it had started, who the enemy was, who was fighting whom, who was winning or how it would, or could, end.''
New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
The tale of the girl, Kim Phuc, who survived the napalm burns (the result of "friendly fire") that sent her fleeing in terror and pain into history.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 8.02(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

    KIM EASED BACK A CORNER OF THE bedroom window curtains. Only from there could she see signs of life outside. The windows of the living room looked at the brick wall of the house next door. Though a skylight in that room made the concession to light, the feeling in the second-floor apartment of the duplex was one of claustrophobia, echoing that of the one-way, one-lane street on which the Bui family lived, in a poor, congested neighborhood tucked in behind the smaller of Toronto's two original Chinatowns. However, from the bedroom window, if one lifted one's eyes over the unbroken line of parked cars and the jumble of flat and peaked roofs opposite, one could take in a view of Toronto's modern downtown skyline.

    Kim's eyes swept the sidewalk for anybody watching the duplex. Then the uncovered porch below. Nobody. But the evidence remained: a crushed pop can and the telltale red-and-white carton of a Kentucky Fried Chicken lunch from the outlet at the top of the street. Yesterday evening at dusk, she and Toan, believing they had entered their apartment unseen by coming up the back stairs, had looked from this window, and noticing the pop can and carton left behind, had come to the same conclusion—the two women they had just met on the sidewalk had been staking out their address for some time that day, at least long enough to get hungry. One of them had a camera. Kim had cautioned her husband against opening the front door to remove the refuse. This much she knew: the long lens of a camera can see a lot.

    The night before, Kim had gone to bed in anagitated state. She had called Michael Levine, the lawyer acting as her agent, who was handling her publicity, including requests from the media. "If those women try to get into your house," he'd said, "call the police." The image of men in uniform made Kim anxious, and that night, she had one of her recurring war nightmares. Sometimes they involved bombs, sometimes mortar fire or gunfire. But always she is a child. That night it began with her standing amidst a group of chatting soldiers. An argument broke out among them. Gunfire erupts. "We have to get out!" Kim screams. She runs, terrified of being killed. But as she runs, she tires, and she doesn't know how she will keep going.

    As usual, she woke to escape death. Feeling stone cold, she did as always: she shook Toan awake. "Hold me," she whispered. When her tears stopped, as usual, she found she was consoling him: "It's okay. I have to suffer like that."

    Toan left to go job hunting, picking up the pop can and carton on his way out. Kim turned her mind to how the day would unfold: the colleague of the photographer, or rather, the one without a camera, had agreed, as Kim had asked, to call Kim's lawyer. "After you call him, after that I can work with you," Kim had told her. All that day, Kim found herself waiting for the telephone to ring, expecting Levine to call to say that the two women had requested an interview. Not even her usual hour of Spanish-language daytime TV soaps could distract her from the questions that paced back and forth across her mind. How did the two women know her address? Why had they been waiting all day on the sidewalk? The day came to an end, marking the beginning of the weekend, when Levine's law office would be closed.

    By Sunday, Kim was relieved to have church to occupy her mind. The word of God made her forget all her worries. The family's church was in Ajax, an hour away from Toronto by the church van service, and no one there but the pastor knew of Kim's history. Since she and Toan were the only Vietnamese in the congregation, it seemed unlikely that her past would even come up. On Sundays, they attended both the morning and evening services, spending the interval at the home of a friend from the congregation.

    After the first service, she and Toan went to collect their eleven-month-old son, Thomas, from the church daycare.

    Kim felt an urgent tap on her shoulder. It was another father. "Your picture is in the newspaper!" he exclaimed.

    The man, who was responsible for buying newspapers for the church's reading room, held up a Toronto tabloid, The Sunday Sun. It was that day's edition, March 19, 1995. "The photograph that shocked the world" shouted the front page, above a picture of a young girl, naked and running in terror. There was another headline, "Child of war is a woman living in Metro," alongside another picture, one of Kim, wearing the coat she'd been wearing all week.

    Kim lifted her eyes from the newspaper. Clearly, the two women had got the photo they'd come looking for. "Yes," she said. "I am the girl in the picture."

    The newspaper that broke the news—that the subject of one of the famous pictures from the Vietnam war now lived in the West—was The Mail on Sunday, a British tabloid. It syndicated the story to, among others, Toronto's Sunday Sun, which played it across pages two and three. Accompanying the article were photographs of Kim and Toan pushing their baby in a stroller on a Toronto street, and of Kim's parents in front of their mud hut in Trang Bang, Vietnam. The article began:

To her neighbors in a working-class area of Toronto, she is just another young mother, anonymous and hesitant. But to the world, she will remain forever the human symbol of the pointless brutality and savage cost of the Vietnam war. Next month it will be 20 years since the futile American military campaign finally ended ...

    Of all the countless photographs and films which captured that terrifying and bloody war, one potent and compelling image remains: of a young girl, naked and terrified, screaming in pain as she flees a napalm attack on her family's village, Trang Bang, 40 miles from Saigon.

    Today Phan Thi Kim Phuc is a woman of 32. Once exploited by the Vietnamese for anti-capitalist propaganda, wheeled out by the Marxist regime as painful proof of American colonialism, she is now living in hiding in the West, a defector from the Communists who have manipulated her almost all her life ...

    The breaking story was picked up by international wire services. Within a couple of days, Kim's telephone began to ring, and didn't stop. In short order, she tired of hearing callers, complete strangers all, asking to speak to Kim Phuc. She took to letting the telephone ring, leaving Toan—if he was home—to answer and give out the telephone number of Kim's agent. Upon the insistent ringing of the door buzzer, the couple would go to the front window to spy on the person below. Invariably, it was a journalist—or so Kim assumed, judging by the camera bag over a shoulder or the notebook in hand. Often there was a waiting taxi. Eventually, getting no answer, the journalist would leave.

    Night and day, the couple kept the curtains drawn on the front window. Kim grew afraid to leave the house for fear that it was being watched, or that someone lay concealed, waiting for an opportunity to take her picture. Whenever the buzzer sounded, she tried to keep the baby quiet, and to avoid stepping where the wooden floor would creak. Sleep did not release Kim from her anxiety but rather plunged her into the darkness of her recurring nightmares. Exhausted, she spent entire days in her turquoise dressing gown.

    This was not the scenario she had contemplated when, a few months earlier, she had made the decision that, in order to help support the family, she would reemerge from her private life and sell her story; it would be her "work." She had gone for advice to Nancy Pocock, a lifelong social activist well into her eighties. Kim and Toan, like many Vietnamese and Salvadoran refugees in Canada, called her "Mother Nancy."

    "Mom, I want to stop being quiet. Please, how can I do that?" Kim had asked her.

    Nancy had a family friend who knew a prominent Toronto entertainment lawyer, but before making the introduction, she had first wanted to make certain that Kim understood something: once she invited publicity, there would be no going back.

    "Yes, I know. I cannot be quiet again," Kim had said.

    But after a month of jangled nerves and recurring nightmares, Kim was having second thoughts. She worried that plans made with her agent to have the media pay for publicity might be for naught, that, like those two women from the British tabloid, the media would try to get a story and pictures of her without paying a cent. She felt as though the journalistic hounds would make her into a victim all over again. "The accident of those two women on the sidewalk," she lamented to Toan, "was like a bomb falling out of the sky."

Meet the Author

Denise Chong is the author of The Concubine's Children (Viking and Penguin), a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. She is the editor of The Penguin Anthology of Stories by Canadian Women and lives in Ottawa, Ontario, with her husband and two children.

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