Saturday, October 4, 2014

Echoes of the White Giraffe by Sook Nyul Choi

Echoes of the White Giraffe is the second book in Sook Nyul Choi's books about a young girl and her family living in Korea during the first half of the 20th century.

Echoes of the White Giraffe begins in the year 1950. Fifteen-year-old Sookan is now living in Pusan with her younger brother Inchun and her mother after having barely escaped from the bombing of Seoul by the Korean and Chinese Communists. Sookan and her family had reunited after their daring escape out of Northern Korea which was occupied by the Russians who had driven out the Japanese occupiers. Sookan, her best friend Bokhi, Inchun, Teacher Yun and many other refugees had all played a part in building a school so that they could return to their studies. Teacher Yun and other teachers who had escaped from Seoul when the war started eight months ago are eager to help the students catch up.

Sookan misses her "beautiful brick Ewha School with its sparkling classrooms and its beautifully tiered garden." But she also misses her family home in Seoul. As refugees Sookan and her mother and brother live in a small wooden shack at the top of the mountain near Pusan. In their flight from Seoul they became separated from her father and three older brothers and haven't heard anything since then.

One morning Sookan is awoken by the loud yelling of a man on the opposite side of the mountain, telling everyone to wake up. Curious to see who the man is, Sookan races to the top of the mountain and yells back at him. She asks him if he is a mountain poet and calls this unknown man her "shouting poet". His yelling is a daily ritual that awakens the refugees.

Sookan settles into life in Pusan. Her family are Catholics and they attend Father Lee's morning and Sunday Masses. She also sings in the choir which is directed by Haerin Min, the daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Lim, the town doctor. The choir is made up of members from Pusan High School for Boys, Pusan Girls' School and also the refugee students from Seoul. Sookan doesn't much like Haerin, after the disdainful way she treated Sookan and her family when they first arrived in Pusan, looking down on them because they are refugees. Sookan spends a great deal of time with the choir, practicing every Saturday and singing at four Masses on Sunday. It is in the choir that she first meets Haerin's oppa or brother, Junho. Sookan finds seventeen-year-old Junho to be very handsome. Because their voices harmonize so well together, Haerin places Junho and Sookan together in the center of the choir, having them sing duets together.

One Sunday after Mass, Haerin catches up with Sookan as she walks home and questions her about her escape from the war in Seoul. Haerin's insensitive questioning makes Sookran uncomfortable but when Junho manages to meet with them Sookran tells him about her life in Pyongyang, North Korea. Despite Junho's kind remarks Sookan feels humiliated.

Sookran's time in Pusan is punctuated by several tragedies. Her best friend, Bokhi who lives with her aunt, learns that her parents died in the bombing of Seoul. Bokhi is so distraught that she does not return to school for days. Sookran stays at her house to try to encourage Bokhi to accept her parent's deaths and to realize that living her life well will please them. Eventually she manages to get Bokhi to come to see Teacher Yun who helps her cope. But when Sookan returns to her home on the red mountain the next morning she oversleeps. It is then that she realizes that she has not heard the shouting poet that morning and learns from her mother that he has died. Sookran's mother takes her to his grave where they discover his name was Baik Rin which means "white giraffe".

As time passes, Sookran and Junho develop a special friendship. When Sookran misses several days of school because of Bokhi and the death of Baik, Junho comes to visit her on the mountain. Under normal circumstances it would not be proper for Junho to stay to visit Sookran but because he is caught in a heavy downpour, Sookran's mother, recognizing the attraction between the two,  suggests he stay. This gives them a chance to really talk. Sookran tells him how her family came to escape Seoul and travel to Pusan. Junho asks Sookran what her plans are after she finished high school and she tells him that she wants to study history in America, then return to Korea to become a nun with her sister Theresa. This revelation disturbs Junho and as the rain has ended he quickly leaves.

Junho arranges for he and Sookran to have their picture taken together - something that is considered highly improper. When Junho receives the pictures, he secretly passes one onto Sookran but Haerin, jealous of Sookran's relationship with her brother, informs their parents. Junho's mother is furious and yells at Sookran's mother but Dr. Min is more tolerant understanding the innocent nature of their relationship.

With the signing of the armistice, once again dividing Korea in to the communist North and the democratic South, Sookran, Inchun and their mother return to Seoul where they find the three older boys at their badly damaged home. Eventually they learn that their father was killed in the bombing of Seoul. Amidst this loss, Sookran decides that she will study hard so she can apply to colleges in America. But in doing so it will mean leaving behind the young man she truly loves.

One day Junho comes to visit her in Seoul. He is now enrolled in Dongkuk University where he is studying literature. Junho tells Sookran that after finishes his studies he will enter the seminary to become a priest. This leads Sookran to wonder whether he has decided to enter the seminary because she told him she was going to become a nun or whether this was always his plan.

Sookran works diligently passing her exams and prepares to leave for America but before journeying overseas she decides to visit Jonhu. Unable to see him one last time, Sookran must believe that it is because they are "everlasting friends".

Echoes of the White Giraffe is a beautifully written story that explores the themes of identity, forbidden love, and hope. This short novel manages to portray the uncertainty of life during the Korean conflict and the life of a refugee in a realistic, somewhat reserved way. The story is narrated by Sookran who reveals that her family was reunited in Seoul in 1945 and settled into a beautiful home at the base of Namsan Mountain.  All this changes five years later when they are forced to flee from Seoul, their family becoming separated once again and Sookran, her mother and younger brother Inchun, crammed onto a boat which takes them to the southern tip of the Korean peninsula, to Pusan. In the first part of the novel Choi effectively portrays the uncertainty, fear and humiliation of Sookran's situation as a refugee.

Choi makes special use of mountains in her story as a symbol of safety and hope. When Sookran and her family flee to Namsan mountain in Seoul, the mountain is a source of protection and safety. The red-brown mountain they live on in Pusan, along with other refugees, symbolizes the obstacles they now face as refugees within their own country. They have no home, no relatives and an uncertain future. Climbing the mountain at the end of each day for Sookran seems almost impossible. The red mountain mud stains their shoes and their clothing, and climbing is sometimes so difficult that "On rainy days, we had to get down on all fours to climb up the muddy, treeless mountainside." Sookran states that the "red mud caked on my shoes made me feel very heavy." Their new life in Pusan is represented by this mountain. Sookran describes their home as "one room made of four thin plywood walls with a sliding door separating a small kitchen area from the main part..." When she looks down the mountain she is afraid seeing "dark shadows moving about. Feeling afraid that the dark valley might swallow me..."

However, the mountain provides them with a symbol of hope and also comes to represent how their lives gradually change as they overcome various obstacles. It is on the mountain that Sookran hears the man she calls the "shouting poet" who yells every morning "Hello, all you refugees on these mountains. Rise and shine. Remember it is a new day, a brand new day. Hello, hello." His voice reverberates over the mountain and Sookran notes that he makes the word "refugees" sound sweet; "The word "refugee" rang as melodiously as all the other words, not sounding as cold and ugly as it had the first time I heard it..." The shouting poet gives them all  hope reminding them that each day is fresh, a new start.

But as life carries on and Sookran settles into a routine of attending school, hearing Mass and singing, she one day realizes that the mountain too has changed. "The mountain was not so difficult to climb as it used to be. The path up the hill had become worn and smooth from constant use. In some of the steep areas that were difficult to climb, people had dug little footholds that made it more like climbing a ladder". This description can be applied to Sookran's life which has now become a bit easier, with the refugees helping one another. Even the shacks now look different from one another, some with "tall yellow sunflowers, while another had morning glories scaling the walls and climbing the roof. Another had rows of tin cans blossoming with pansies and marigolds... It was as if each little house were furiously competing to be the prettiest, most cheerful one on the mountain." The shouting poet has done his work, he has passed on hope to the refugees on the mountain and that is reflected in their homes and their lives.

Choi's writing is very sensual, evoking the sights, sounds and smells of Sookran's world whether it be in Pusan or Seoul. The descriptions are poetic and beautiful, capturing the world around them, "We walked all the way to the jagged black rocks that jutted into the sea. In gloomy silence, we watched the waves crash violently onto the rocks, filling the air with cold, gray mist."

Sookran is shown to be a sensitive thoughtful girl who develops a chaste attraction to Junho. She rebels mildly against the strict norms of her culture which dictate that men and women do not mix in public and that unmarried men and women do meet unchaperoned. Sookran cannot bring herself to tell Junho how she truly feels, no matter how many times they meet, leaving her wondering what could have been. In the end, her one final attempt to see him goes ungranted making it seem as Junho said that they would be "everlasting friends". Sookran must come to accept Junho's decision to enter the priesthood as he had accepted her decision to travel overseas to study with the intent to eventually enter the convent.

There's also the lovely theme of faith woven through in this novel as Sookran and her mother attend Mass and find hope through their faith.

Choi achieves her purpose well in this novel, explaining some of Korea's 20th century history, and portraying the culture of Korea, the resilience and determination of its people in difficult times to young readers.

Echoes of the White Giraffe is the second of three autobiographical novels written by Sook Nyul Choi is a novel filled with tragedy and loss, but also hope and acceptance.

Book Details:
Echoes of the White Giraffe by Sook Nyul Choi
New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing   1993
137 pp.

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