Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Year of Impossible Goodbyes by Sook Nyul Choi

This is the first in a trilogy of books written by Sook Nyui Choi who was born in Pyongyang, North Korea in order to share her experiences in this turbulent period of history. Choi writes, "Having lived through this turbulent period of Korean history, I wanted to share my experiences. So little is known about my homeland, its rich culture and its sad history." Choi wanted "to write this book to share some of my experiences and foster greater understanding."

It is 1945 and World War II continues to rage on. For the Koreans, it means continued occupation by Imperial Japan, which is fighting against the American's to retain control over much of the Pacific and South Asia.

Nine year old Sookan lives with her family in Kirimi, Pyongyang. Her father and older brothers, Hanchun, Jaechun and Hyunchun have been taken away, while her younger brother, seven year old Inchun lives with her and her mother and her Aunt Tiger. Her older sister, Theresa is a nun in a convent just outside of Pyongyang.  Sookan's grandfather is a Buddhist but her mother is Roman Catholic. 

Sookan's Grandfather has been teaching her to read and write in Korean and Chinese  and she has also been learning about the ancient Korean kingdoms - all for this forbidden by the Japanese. Instead they are forced to worship at the Shinto temple and to pray for victory over the "White Devils" - the Americans.

In the backyard of their home is a large wooden shack which was built by the Japanese and serves as a factory making socks for the Japanese soldiers. Sookan's cousin, Kisa is a mechanic who greases the knitting machines so the "sock girls" can churn out the required quota of socks for the Japanese. Captain Narita comes daily to inspect the factory and the workers. Sookan is friends with many of the girls including Haiwon and Okja. Sookan, her mother and Aunt Tiger work with the sock tubes, cutting them and turning them in to tube socks.

In June, 1945, Sookan's mother returns from a visit with Theresa with a small Christian book as a gift for Haiwon's birthday. The next day during her birthday party and before the workday starts, Captain Narita arrives earlier than usual. He takes Haiwon's birthday gifts as well as Sookan's mother's brass dishes.Aunt Tiger is certain this is not the end of it when Narita leaves. That afternoon two Japanese-trained Korean police arrive and chop down Grandfather's pine tree that he meditates under. This is so devastating to Grandfather that he never leaves his bedroom and eventually dies. Before he dies he asks his daughter, Sookan's mother to tell them about their family.

Sookan's mother tells how Grandfather was a scholar before Japan occupied Korea. Once occupied, all Koreans were encouraged to dress like the Japanese and to speak Japanese. Sookan's mother tells them that after the Japanese cut off Grandfather's topknot, they burned their village, resulting in the death of her two brothers and her mother. They escaped to Manchuria where her grandfather and Sookan's father  where part of the independence movement and where they published a newspaper in Hangul. She met Sookan's father in Manchuria and they were married there and had the four oldest children then. Only Inchun and Sookan were born in Korea. Father Carroll an American priest said Mass for all the Korean Catholics who were forbidden to go to church. He baptized all of Sookan's family but eventually he was discovered and had to leave Korea.

Grandfather's death is not the only terrible event to happen. Several days after his death, Captain Nakita comes to inspect the factory and tells Mother that the girls are not working hard enough and that they will be sent to "help the soldiers fight better". Sookan does not know what this means but her mother his horrified as are Haiwon and Okja. Sadly this comes to pass, and one night Captain Narita shows up with a truck and the girls are forced into the truck and taken away.

Sookan is sent to school after this only to discover that it is nothing more than indoctrination and a work camp. She is not allowed to use her Korean name, speak Korean or help other students. However, her time at school is shortlived and Sookan is quickly expelled.

In August, with the defeat and surrender of the Japanese, they begin to leave Korea. It is an anxious time for Sookan and her family as they await the expected arrival of the Americans and hope to hear about husbands, fathers and sons. They soon learn that the Americans and Russians have divided Korea at the 38th parallel with the Russians taking the northern part of the country.

At first the Korean people welcome the Russians, however, Sookan's mother is skeptical. Sookan remembers Grandfather's distrust of the Russians who he felt wanted to "own Korean just as the Japanese and the Chinese had."  Mother learns from the nuns at the convent that many Koreans are now attempting to flee to the south.

As the Russian Communists settle in and begin indoctrinating the local Korean population, it becomes evident that Sookan's family must leave. With the help of Kisa they make arrangements to flee to the south. Kisa tells Sookan's family that their father and brothers have fled to the South safely and that they will meet them there. Arrangements are made and tearful goodbyes made to Kisa and Aunt Tiger who must remain behind to deflect suspicion away from Mother, Sookan and Inchun. Will they be able to make the treacherous journey south across the 38th parallel to freedom?

Choi's short novel for children effectively portrays life in a country long under foreign occupation. The children suffer just as the adults do from privation, lack of education and destruction of their culture and their links to their past. In spite of this, Sookan's family secretly tries to preserve their culture, teaching the younger children their language and history and hiding important keepsakes and heirlooms. The Japanese however, make this increasingly difficult by starving the Korean population so that eventually all of their most precious links to their past are given up in order to survive.

A strong theme throughout the novel is perseverance. All of Sookan's family persevere through the  terrible living conditions and the loss of family and the sock girls. This perseverance is demonstrated most admirably at the end of the novel when Inchun and Sookan are abandoned by the "guide" who is supposed to lead them across the border. Despite losing their mother, and desperate to get to freedom, they overcome starvation, physical exhaustion and injury, and emotional trauma, against enormous odds.

The themes of faith and forgiveness also permeate the novel. Sookan's mother is Catholic and she has continued to pray for the safety of her husband and sons. When Kisa tells her they are safe, Mother states, "I knew my God would not desert me. I knew He was listening to all our prayers."  Despite the terrible things done to them, Grandfather and Aunt Tiger manage to forgive. Grandfather tells Inchun and Sookan "I do not feel bitter about what happened. I am not angry anymore." after what happened to his beloved pine tree. It is more important that his grandchildren learn about their family and their past. Aunt Tiger tells Sookan's mother that when she came to her house she was bitter and angry but with the help of Sookan's mother, she has been able to move past her feelings of revenge and to help others, "to do some good".

Written from Sookan's first person point-of-view, Year of Impossible Goodbyes is a poignant, stirring account of events that happened a world away during the early twentieth century. Most young people study World War II from the perspective of events that happened in Britain and Europe and only rarely learn about events that occurred at the same time in other parts of the world such as Asia. Although the book is not autobiographical, the events that happened to Sookan in Year of Impossible Goodbyes are likely very similar to what Sook Nyul Choi experienced as her family fled North Korea.

Korean culture has been strongly influenced by China. Many parts of Chinese culture, including its writing, political systems and architecture were adopted by the Korean people and made their own.  It is this ability to adapt foreign ideas and make them their own that is a defining characteristic of Korean culture. Korea's neighbour to the west, Japan, annexed Korea in 1910 and began to force Japanese culture and language onto the Korean people. As Japan continued to solidify its rule over Korea, gradually all forms of Korean culture were prohibited. By World War II, As Sook Nyul Choi writes in her novel, it was forbidden to speak Korean and Korean's were forced to worship at Japanese Shinto temples. Much of the country's cultural history was either destroyed or removed to Japan. During the war, men were conscripted to fight in the Japanese military and women were taken from villages to be used a "comfort women", a Japanese euphemism for sex slavery which was gently alluded to in Choi's novel.

Unfortunately the end of World War II did not bring a reprieve for Koreans living in the north. They now faced a new occupying army, the Communist Russians.When the Japanese retreated from the Korean pennisula, the two occupying armies, the Americans in the south and the Russians in the north divided Korea into two temporary zones. However, as the superpowers of the Soviet Union (Russia) and the United States could not agree on a government for Korea, it became impossible to set up a new government for all of Korea. The Korean War was instigated when the North attacked the South. The war ended in a stalemate in 1953 with the Communist North supported by the Soviet Union and China and the South gradually adopting a free-market democracy towards the end of the 20th century. North Korea has been in the news in the past decade because of the restrictive regime of Kim Jong-il who has led the country to brink of starvation and the implementation of large scale work camps. There is little doubt that the Korean people have suffered terribly over the past century.

Author Sook Nyul Choi was born in North Korea in 1937 and emigrated to the United States to attend college. Year of Impossible Goodbyes is the first book in a series, followed by Echoes of the White Giraffe and Gathering of Pearls.

Book Details:
Year of Impossible Goodbyes by Sook Nyui Chol
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company            1991
169 pp.

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