This is a very well researched piece of historic fiction that takes place from 1944 and continues until 2008. It also is a very dark, difficult read because of the sudden unexpected interjection of brutal violence fairly often in the narrative. The story is about a unique community of women in a matriarchal society in which females were more desired than male children as the women do everything to insure their own and their family’s survival. However, they possess none of the benefits of their responsibilities. All forms of inheritance and all ultimate decision making is in the hands of the men as the power rests with them. The novel takes place over a period of several decades as it goes back and forth in time from about 1944 to 2017 and is set in a remote area of the Korean Province of Jeju.
The women of this island are the worker bees and the men, deemed weaker and less intelligent, live up to their reputation as drones. They care for the children and spend their days chatting and drinking, without producing anything of true value. The women are like family to each other, gossiping freely. They dive deep into the ocean and collect mollusks, while the elderly divers collect algae near or on the shore. These prizes are sold for their subsistence. They garden, breastfeed, bear children, without the benefit of birth control, and seem relatively happy to serve the prurient needs of their spouses, spouses who are usually chosen for them along class, genetic and other background lines.
Young-Sook is a fairly naïve, uneducated, but very strong young woman who has been trained by her mother to be a Haenyeo, a diver. Her mother is the leader of their collective of female divers. These women truly exist, although they are far fewer in number, today. They have been studied for their unique ability to dive, hold their breath and withstand unusual cold water temperatures.
Mi-ja is a child that is abused by her aunt and uncle. They practically starve her when she is orphaned. They are forced to care for her because of their familial duty. Her parents are viewed as collaborators with the Japanese, whom the Koreans hate because of their abusive regulations. Most villagers believe the sins of Mi-ja’s parents were visited upon her, as well, so she too is tainted and shunned by most people, except for Young-Sook’s mother who soon cares for her like one of her own. The two young girls become fast friends and are as close as sisters.
The story is told through their life experiences, their friendship and their marriages. The narrative exposes their deprivation, customs, superstitions, lack of creature comforts and simplicity of lifestyle. The greater sophistication of Mi-ja, who is somewhat educated, is contrasted with the illiteracy of Young-Sook, who often behaves far more nobly and bravely, until she is hurt and betrayed beyond repair. How that injury and wound is healed is the crux of the story.
When Janet, Jim, Clara and Scott, arrive in Jeju, from America, looking for the friend of Mi-ja, the history of the friendship and the times, complete with the awful brutality and injustice that occurred in Jeju, especially on April 3, 1948, is starkly revealed. It is hard to read because the cruelty and carnage were monumentally inhumane.
Still, I found the book to be profoundly interesting because of its history and detailed information about a community of females that I had never heard about, and I was therefore prompted to do some research. A book that encourages learning is a gift. However, I found the author’s often anti-American comments to be disingenuous. It wasn’t until near the final quarter of the book that the author admits that the Americans were not participants in the pain caused by the rebels, but rather they were faulted for their lack of intervention to stop their madness. The South Korean rebels they supported, after Korea won its independence from Japan, were brutally cruel in their violence. They slaughtered those they believed were communists and collaborators. They burned their homes, hunted their relatives. They engaged in the performance of horrific acts of violence that rivaled those of Hitler’s storm troopers and sadists. There is little attention paid to the Holocaust, or the rest of the world, in this novel, although a major portion of it does take place during that terrible time period of torture, starvation and death.
America is portrayed as imperialistic, and as an accessory to the suffering of the Jejuans. Their intention, it was believed, was to wipe out communism there. The islanders were shocked that rather than being abused by the Japanese from whom they were now free, they were being horribly brutalized their own countrymen, countrymen they had viewed as peaceful and certainly not as violent torturers and murderers. From articles I read, I learned that it was the South Koreans and the police, whom the Americans supported, that committed one of the most brutal massacres of the war, against the Jejuans. Staunchly anti-communist, they viewed the Jejuans as “Reds” and brutally put down their uprising, *committing a significant amount of the terrorism, torture and murders on Jeju Island over the period of time of the revolt, from 1948-1954.
While I recommend the book highly, I warn the reader to be prepared to witness the horrors these simply people were forced to endure without ever truly understanding why.