On Tuesday, October 6 at 11 am, 2020 One Maryland One Book author Lisa See visits virtually to discuss her book The Island of Sea Women. She will be in conversation with Laura Yoo, Professor of English at Howard Community College and a board member of Howard County Poetry and Literature Society. Register to receive a link to this free event.
Spanning generations, and set against the backdrop of the Japanese occupation of Korea, the Korean War, and the broader geopolitics of the Cold War, The Island of Sea Women takes place on the island of Jeju. It focuses on haenyeo – female divers, who cooperated to create a matrifocal society. These women were the primary earners in their families, while their husbands took on more domestic roles. However, the complexity of the narrative captures the broader theme of nearly 70 years of friendship.
See writes, “No one picks a friend for us; we come together by choice,” and such was the case for Young-sook, the daughter of the chief haenyeo, and Mi-ja, an orphan whose father was a Japanese collaborator. Young-sook’s family, in spite of being wary of Mi-ja’s stained reputation, practically adopts her, and their friendship is a beautiful and rare sort. It is, “not tied together through ceremony or the responsibility to create a son; we tie ourselves together through moments. The spark when we first meet. Laughter and tears shared. Secrets packed away to be treasured, hoarded and protected. The wonder that someone can be so different from you and yet still understand your heart in a way no one else ever will.” Such deeply shared moments, secrets, and experiences define the nature of their friendship.
As the girls reach adulthood, the prospect of their respective arranged marriages begins to strain their friendship. Mi-ja looks to marry the wealthy and handsome son of a Japanese collaborator, who resides in the city, while Young-sook has an understanding with a neighbor boy, Jun-bu. Yet, their friendship further solidifies through the shared experiences of their “leaving-home water-work” in Russia’s Vladivostok and motherhood.
The looming backdrop of the Korean Crisis and the 4.3 Incident (the massacre of thousands of Koreans on April 3, 1948 in response to a communist rebellion) at the hands of the new Korean government brought into power by the United States results in crimes against humanity and atrocities being committed against the innocent. The novel’s major dilemma revolves around Young-sook’s struggle with the traumatic and rather graphic barbarity of the 4.3 Incident and her subsequent rejection of Mi-ja’s friendship.
While the novel deals with several themes, the overarching theme of friendship intersects and interacts with some of the other themes like male hegemony in Korean society, motherhood, religion and spirituality, war, injustice and finally, loss, betrayal and forgiveness. This book has much to teach about female companionship, trust, and, more importantly, the necessity to hear a friend without judgment.
Review by Rohini G., who is an Adult Curriculum Specialist with Howard County Library System and is a member of the selection committee for One Maryland One Book
If you wish to discuss the novel, several HCLS Book Discussion groups have chosen it for upcoming meeting. Register to receive a Zoom link.
Stories of the World on Monday, Oct 5 at 7 pm
Books on Tap on Wednesday, Oct 7 at 6 pm
The Thursday Next Book Club on Thursday, Oct 8 at 7 pm
ELK Excellent Reads on Tuesday, Nov 10 at 12:30 pm