Monday, October 25, 2021

Korean Women’s Heartbreak and Strength During World War II


It was a chrysanthemum, a symbol of mourning for Koreans. The imperial seal of Japan was the yellow chrysanthemum, a crest symbolizing the imperial family’s power. Emi had wondered which came first, the symbol of power or mourning.

“White Chrysanthemum,” by Mary Lynn Bracht, is one of the easiest books I’ve ever read and one of the hardest books I’ve ever read. Easy because it’s well-written and fast-paced, pulling you along from the start. Hard because of the heart-breaking, unbelievable and unimaginable truth of the story where power and mourning play off each other from the first page to the last.

World War II has been providing a treasure trove of stories for years. “White Chrysanthemum” uses the Pacific theater as the backdrop and then veers off into its own lane by exploring the little known history of Korea.

It’s 1943 and we’re introduced to our protagonists on the seemingly idyllicMary Lynn Brach. We learn straight off that Japan annexed Korea in 1910 so their occupation preceded WWII by decades. Outwardly, the inhabitants of JeJu follow the rules their Japanese occupiers inflict, but in secret they practice the proud ways of their Korean heritage. We learn about one group specifically, the haenyeo, women divers of the sea. These women dive deep into the cold waters of the sea harvesting everything from urchins to abalone and then send it to market for the Japanese, all while working and diving overtime to feed their own people. Bodies and lungs more adept at this work than men, these women enjoy a fierce independence unique to any culture in the early 1900s.

Hana and Emi are daughters of a haenyeo. Hana, the oldest, has already been initiated in a ceremony held late at night, away from prying Japanese eyes. Emi is still too young and so sits on the shoreline while her mother and sister dive. It’s while Hana is out in the water that she sees something that will change their lives: a Japanese soldier heading towards Emi. Hana knows that should the soldier discover her sister, she’ll be taken away like countless other young Korean girls. So she does what any big sister would do – swims onto shore to intercept him. Mesmerized by the sight of Hana coming out of the water, Corporate Morimoto never discovers Emi hidden behind rocks. Instead, he takes Hana and the sisters are separated.

The story goes back and forth from the present (Emi) and the past (Hana). Hana is bundled with other young Korean girls to become a “woman of comfort” for the Japanese soldiers, a lovely name hiding the ugliness of sex slavery. Moved from her beloved sea community to Manchuria, Hana never forgets her haenyeo roots and struggles to maintain her identity. In the present, we watch Emi try to reconcile the secrets she has kept from her family, from the fate of her sister and what happened to JeJu and the rest of Korea during and
after WWII.

Hana and Emi represent the experience of thousands of Korean women (and men) from the early 1900s through the end of the Korean War. Bracht’s research is impeccable and the conclusion she reaches in the Authors Notes is inevitable. Hana and Emi bring to life a period in world history that many Americans are probably unaware existed. And for as many Hana’s and Emi’s that lived during those horrible times, I imagine there were just as many who did not enjoy the strength of spirit of these haenyeo women. Since Hana and Emi are fictional, Bracht was free to conclude their stories as she saw fit. Some would argue a harsher finish would be more appropriate but not me. I’m certainly not naïve enough to believe endings like Hana and Emi’s actually happened, but I needed the ending that we got.

“I am a haenyeo. Like my mother, and her mother before her, like my sister will be one day, her daughters too – I was never anything but a woman of the sea. Neither you nor any man can make me less than that.”

But oh, how they tried. How they tried.

Summer is upon us! What kind of books are you looking to while away these sultry, lazy days?

Lynn Alexander is a recently published author and long-time book, food, cat and college football lover (Go Green!). Her career journey started in upstate New York, writing and recording commercials for radio. She moved to Venice, Florida to manage a restaurant which led her to Naples and Marco in 2002, where she currently books weddings and events for a local resort. Alexander is a Leadership Marco 2015 alum which fed her passion for history and learning. A butterfly at parties but a loner at heart, she loves nothing more than baking yummy desserts then retreating to a quiet corner to read.

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