Brought to you by OBS reviewer Alina
Beware of spoilers
Hi-Dong Chai and Jana McBurney-Lin, the award-winning author of My Half of the Sky, turn their hands to a remarkable story of a family and country torn apart by outside forces. The time is 1942, the place, Japanese-occupied Seoul, Korea. Fifteen-year-old He-Seung is full of fire, ready to take on these Japanese…if only he could convince his father, a Christian minister more concerned about saving his flock in a time when Emperor-worship has become mandatory. Since occupation, the Japanese have eradicated the Korean language, names, even the country’s flower. Now they are seeking Korean boys as volunteers for their army. When his father is arrested by the Japanese, however, He-Seung must swallow his hatred of the enemy and volunteer for the military. Even harder, he must leave his mother and baby brother He-Dong to fend for themselves. Based on a true story, Blossoms & Bayonets is suffused with the tense atmosphere of the period. The story lends an eyewitness perspective to events as they unfold. revealing an era of nuance and complexity. The result is a work that speaks volumes about the power of faith.
“McBurney-Lin crafts…an engaging and entertaining read from beginning to end.” –Midwest Book Review
“Impossible to put down-or to forget-authors’ grippingly suspenseful and deeply affecting historical novel limns the lives of a Korean family under Japanese rule with astonishing grace and power.” –Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You
“Riveting internal dialogue and narration interspersed with quotes from those running the war efforts on various fronts combine to compel the reader forward. I say compel rather than propel, because I had to read. I had to know how this family and those around them would fare in the end.”-Keri Rojas, bookseller at Cornerstone Cottage, Hampton, IA. (Goodreads)
I don’t normally read books about war or violence in general, I believe life is hard enough as it is, but I am always open to new experiences and this one was definitely new: I know close to nothing about Korea, unless you count my watching the TV series M.A.S.H. (which I loved, by the way). So, I was very excited about the prospect of reading this book and I came out of the experience extremely happy from many points of view.
First of all, this is a very well written book. It is obvious that the writer is very familiar with all aspects of Asian society, traditions, culture and politics, and possesses the talent to express it. I remember when I was a child watching Japanese cartoons and being extremely shocked at the way the characters behaved, and absolutely convinced they cannot really behave like that, until I actually met some Chinese and Japanese people and realized that they are exactly like that. And highly fascinating. I loved to read about everyday life in Korea, the way they addressed each other, the respect that tradition required them to show. For example, the youngest son was supposed to serve his older brothers, this was considered his most important duty. Also, when a woman gave birth to a child she lost her name and became known as X’s mother (uhmony). Not to mention that the women were married off to some men their family chose, without them ever meeting their husbands before the wedding, and then they are expected to be faithful wives and servants to these men:
“I didn’t sneak a look at my husband for five days.”
The three brothers in the story are called He-Chul, He-Seung and He-Dong, which I guess means Brother Chul, Brother Seung and Brother Dong. I was a little bit concerned about their diet, though, as they seemed to be eating kimchi (fermented vegetable side dish made mainly of cabbage and spices) day and night.
I was also happy because I could relate to so much of the story, not because I actually endured their fate, but because I also come from a former communist country, and although very young at the time, I do remember the whispering, the rations cards, and the mind-numbing propaganda. This, unfortunately, also stressed me a lot, as I felt very connected to the characters and hated the Japanese even more than I would normally while immersed in a book.
Another aspect of the story that I found very appealing, was that no matter how much they suffered, people still helped each other. Like when uhmony and He-Dong, the only ones left in the family home, find out that the Japanese are going to seize their home and turn it into headquarters for their Police, and their neighbor, Min-Kook uhmony, offers them her own home to live in while she is away taking care of her father-in-law, which was for over two years.
The story is told from the point of view of He-Seung, the middle brother, He-Dong, the little brother, and uhmony, the Mom. He-Seung and his best friend sacrifice themselves and join the Japanese Youth corps, one to save his father from prison, and the other, to be closer to his girlfriend. They are portrayed perfectly, teens who think they are smarter and stronger than anyone else, but who are innocent and full of love at heart. I loved them. I loved little He-Dong, who is afraid of God’s punishment, so always analyzes everything he does very carefully, and who is the one who develops the most in the story. When the eldest brother, He-Chul, comes home after finishing his studies and starts all that talk about communism ideals and so on, I couldn’t but feel sorry for the poor people of Korea. They had gotten rid of one evil and another was already insinuating itself in their midst. Unfortunately, I know first hand what communism can do and it ain’t pretty.
The Japanese occupation was awfully tough for the people of Korea and the best way to see it is to look at what happens to this poor family which is the main character of this book. The father is taken away because he holdS Christian services at his house, and the Japanese soldiers lie to the boys:
“Your father will be fine with us.”
Later on, they bring him home a defeated man, after having obviously tortured him:
“Your husband fell down. We don’t have any place to care for him.”
The Japanese sound just like any other tyrant:
“The Japanese Empire will not lose this fight with the barbarian enemy because we Japanese embody unique characteristics no other race has: loyalty, strength, bravery.”
Unfortunately, history has a way of repeating itself. After the Japanese are defeated, He-Dong and uhmony come across a group of Korean boys who are beating a Japanese boy. In an attempt to save him, the mom offers the boys some peanuts. All except one run away:
“He took a handful of the peanuts from my bag, shook the treat back and forth in his palm. Then he threw the peanuts in my face. Jap lover.”
History always repeats itself. When they have the power, people will always use it. Read the book and find out for yourselves. Hopefully, some of us will learn a lesson from it.
*OBS would like to thank the author and TLC tours for supplying us with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review as part of their ongoing blog tour*