Little Dog is writing a letter to his mother, Rose, to return to the past. He wants to go back to the time in Virginia when Rose was shocked to see a taxidermy head of a deer hanging near the bathroom of a rest stop. She couldn’t understand why anyone would want to hang a corpse on the wall and thought it was like “death that won’t finish.” Little Dog states that he is writing because he was always told never to begin a sentence with “because.” But Little Dog declares that he isn’t trying to write a sentence: he is trying to break free.
During the fall in Michigan, thousands of monarch butterflies begin their seasonal migration. From September through November, butterflies from Canada and the United States fly down south for the winter. During this time, butterflies are everywhere. Little Dog remarks that just one night of cold weather is enough to kill an entire generation of monarchs, so we learn that their survival is one of right timing. When Little Dog was five years old, he hid behind a doorway in the hall to prank his mother. He shouted “Boom!” while jumping out at her. Little Dog says that she screamed, her face raked and twisted, and grabbed at her chest. Little Dog didn't realize, then, that the war was still inside of her and that "once it enters you it never leaves—but merely echoes."
The first time Rose physically abused Little Dog, he was four years old; he described it as "a hand, a flash, a reckoning."
We soon transition to another memory and learn of the time when Little Dog tried to teach Rose to read. However, with the roles of mother and son reversed, and with their relationship imbued with tension, Rose grew impatient.
Little Dog also mentions a time when she hit him with the remote control, leaving a welt on his arm. Little Dog told his teacher he fell during tag.
When Rose was 46, she was struck by a sudden urge to color, so she went to Wal-Mart and bought crayons and coloring books. She colored countless pictures and hung them around the house.
There was also the time, when Rose threw a Lego box at his head, and his blood spotted the floor. While coloring a landscape, Rose asked Little Dog if he “ever made a scene” and put himself inside it. “How could I tell you what you were describing was writing?” Little Dog asks her. After Rose bandaged Little Dog’s head, she apologized and took him to McDonald’s. Little Dog thinks about his mother's childhood in Vietnam and says that he once read that parents with PTSD have a greater tendency to hit their kids.
Little Dog read Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary and decided to write to Rose. He remembers Saturdays growing up in Hartford. If there was enough money after paying the bills, Rose and Little Dog would dress up and go to the mall off the interstate. They would buy gourmet chocolates and walk around until closing and then go home empty-handed.
One morning, Little Dog looked out his window before the sunrise and saw a deer in the fog. There was a second deer nearby that looked almost like a shadow. He wished Rose could color that scene.
Little Dog recounts that, once with a gallon of milk, Rose struck him and milk spilled to the floor.
Years ago at Six Flags, Rose rode the Superman rollercoaster with him, and then she threw up in a garbage can.
Once in Goodwill, Rose tried on a dress for her birthday. “Do I look like a real American?” she asked. The dress was too fancy for her to have a reason to wear it. Little Dog notes that she got it anyway stating that there was “a possibility of use.” The next day, when Rose was at work, he tried the dress on, trying to be more like her.
We learn that Little Dog is 28 years old. He stands five feet, four inches tall, and he weighs 112 pounds. He says that he is writing from a body that used to be hers, which is also to say that he is writing as a son. He hopes to begin at “the end of the sentence,” where there is “another alphabet written in the blood, sinew, and neuron.” According to Little Dog, that is the part of the story that really matters.
Little Dog was 13 when he told Rose to stop hitting him. She said nothing and left to get eggs, but Little Dog knew she would never hit him again.
He wonders when a war truly ends and asks Rose when the meaning of her name will not include what she left behind. “I’m not a monster,” she once said to him, “I’m a mother.” Little Dog reassured her and said she wasn’t a monster but believes that being a monster isn’t so bad. Little Dog thinks that the word is a signal, and can mean many things. At school, the kids call Little Dog a “freak, fairy, fag,” and those words, Little Dog points out, are also iterations of a monster and of a kind of monstrosity.
Little Dog goes on to state that, in a previous draft of his letter, he explains how he came to become a writer. Though he states that the exact reason for him wanting to write is not of particular import, in what follows, he begins to trace his own relationship with his grandmother Lan. Little Dog states that she is nothing like his mother and that she is the one who gave him his name. We learn that in Vietnamese culture, the smallest (and thus weakest) children are often named after low-down or vile things to ward off bad spirits.
According to Little Dog, trauma affects the body as well as the mind. Trauma hits the muscles and joints, and it is reflected in posture. Lan is practically bent in half, Little Dog notes. Once, on the Fourth of July, Rose woke from a sleep when the neighbors let off some fireworks. She crawled to Little Dog and covered his mouth. At times, Lan didn’t even seem to notice the sounds, but Little Dog remembers when they heard distant gunshots in Hartford, which was not an unusual sound, and Rose dropped to the floor.
One of Little Dog’s chores as a child was to pluck the grey hairs from Lan’s head. “For this work,” Little Dog says, “I was paid in stories.” She told him stories of the war, of their Vietnamese culture and history, and of their family. She told him about Rose’s father, an American serviceman she met in Saigon while wearing her purple dress. During the war, Little Dog states that it was Lan’s body and purple dress that kept her alive.
Little Dog remembers riding the school bus and how no one ever sat next to him. The boys gave him a hard time and shoved him into the window glass. “Speak English,” a boy named Kyle said. He slapped Little Dog and made him say his name, and when Little Dog told Rose about it later that night, she slapped him too. “You have to find a way, Little Dog,” she said. “You have to be a real boy and be strong.” The next day when Little Dog left for school, she called him “Superman.”
Little Dog states that some say history is circular and that is how Lan’s stories were conveyed. Sometimes, her stories would change slightly—colors, the number of air raids that day, if Rose was laughing or crying—but for the most part, her stories stayed the same. “[T]he truth is,” Little Dog says, “I don’t know, Ma.” He knows lots of “theories” that he writes and then deletes. “What’s your theory,” Little Dog asks Rose, “about anything?” Little Dog knows Rose will say she doesn’t know any and that theories are for those with too much time on their hands.
He remembers when he went with Rose to the butcher to get an oxtail. She told the butcher in Vietnamese what she wanted, but he didn’t understand. Rose tried speaking the bit of French she still remembered from childhood, so the butcher went in the back and returned with another man who spoke Spanish. Rose told Little Dog to tell them what she wanted, but he didn’t know that oxtail was called oxtail. They bought only a loaf of bread and a jar of mayonnaise and left. Their words were wrong everywhere, Little Dog says, “even in their mouths.”
When she was a girl, Rose watched her school burn in a napalm raid, and she never went back to school again. In Southeast Asia, Little Dog says, macaques are the most hunted primate. In some room, Little Dog imagines, a man will soon cut the macaque’s skull open, and men will eat the animal’s brain, as it struggles below the table, dipped in alcohol and garlic. They believe, Little Dog says, that it will cure impotence. Little Dog notes that the brain of a macaque is the closest, of any mammal, to that of a human.
Little Dog begins his letter to his mother with an image and moment of protracted death: he not only declares the purpose of his letter—to reach his mother even when he is aware of its impossibility—but he also describes the time in which his mother was jolted out of her sense of stability when she encountered the taxidermy buck that hung over the soda machine by the restroom of a gas station.
The rest of the novel includes a series of vignettes. Little Dog both discusses his past and mobilizes images in order to trace its effects on his understanding of himself, familial relations, and intimate relationships. The following vignettes that Little Dog charts begin with the same refrain—"that time"—and recalls intimate, violent, and touching moments of his mother. Some of the moments are of Little Dog attempting to teach his mother how to read; his mother's keen engagement with coloring books; his mother working in a nail salon; or Little Dog telling his mother to stop hitting him. The narratives occupy different emotional tenors and centers. Despite, or rather because of, the complexity of Little Dog's relationship with his mother, the tone is largely somber and mournful.
We learn that in Vietnamese culture, the smallest (and thus weakest) children are often named after low-down or vile things to ward off bad spirits. It is through this moment that Little Dog states that he learned that to love someone is also to name them something horrible. Names become forms of protection for him. However, we also learn that sometimes names cannot protect a person from everything, and that Lan and his mother still suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
We also learn of Little Dog's life outside of his home. He is considered an outsider and a social outcast amongst his peers at school. It is here that Little Dog develops one of the primary themes of the text: alienation, xenophobia, and U.S. nationalism. Little Dog tells his mother of his troubles, and she tells him that he must be strong—he must be her "Superman."
Following this tender moment, Little Dog begins a meditation on history through Lan's past. He states that her narratives were often like traveling in a spiral and begins to recount more of her personal history. This moment allows Little Dog to explore the nature of memory and the ways in which language attempts to make these histories legible and, thus, known.