Friday, March 7, 2014

Blossoms and Bayonets - by Jana McBurney-Lin and Hi-Dong Chai - An Account of Seoul, Korea Under Japanese Control in 1942

I know the title of this blog is a little long, but I thought it was important to have the whole thing in there to pique your interest.

First of all, the subject matter of this book is too serious for my normal snark.  So I will dispense with it - for this one time only!  The book talks about Seoul, Korea in 1942.  The country is under the control of the Japanese and has been since 1910.  But, now, during the war, the Japanese have done away with the Korean language, Korean names, and even Korea's national flower.  On top of that, the country's teenage boys, 16 and up, are being given a strong "suggestion" to join the Japanese army.  It's a very tumultuous time for Korea's citizens.

Blossoms and Bayonets is based on the life of the co-author, Hi-Dong Chai, who is a young boy during the war.  It's a gripping story and is made even more so by the fact that many of the characters in the book, including himself and his family, are real people.  I learned so many things from this book.  As little as I know that I know, I was still blown-away by how much less than even that I knew (make sense?).  Here are some of the details I learned from that time period:

1.  The Koreans hated the Japanese for the occupation of their country.
2.  After the war, the country was divided into North and South because the United States allowed The Soviet Union to take over the Northern half.  This happened because the U.S. was desperate for some help, and the Soviet Union offered to give that help in exchange for the Northern half of Korea.  It just so happened that the deal was made one day before Japan surrendered.
3.  Christianity was just beginning to show up in Korea.  The unofficial religion at the time, as imposed by Japan, was emperor-worship.
4.  Japan's intention was to take over the world.
5.  At the beginning of each chapter, there is a short quote or report from the Japanese or the U.S. or historians about what was happening during that particular period of time (from 2/23/42-11/1/45).  I learned a ton from these chapter beginnings.

This book is not just about war and suffering.  There are many typical family moments, especially between the middle boy and the younger boy (the older son is out of the area), who are 15 and 6 at the beginning of the story.  In fact, I appreciated that the 15-year old is not always nice to the 6-year old.  That seemed normal to me.  But it is fascinating to see how a traditional Korean family operated, trying to maintain their customs in the middle of a war and an occupation.

There are also some emotional moments.  Like when the middle son connects with a neighborhood girl.  And then reconnects with her after the war.  And there's a scene at the end that was a real tearjerker.  I also very much liked the relationship that both sons had with best friends.  The relationships in this book are what largely make the book work.  Do you remember in my last post when I said that there are moments in many of the books I read where I nod or yell out loud, among other reactions?  Well, in this one, very late in the book, I actually said out loud:  "Hmmm."  I like when a book gets an involuntary reaction from me.

Hi-Dong Chai was asked:  "This book is about Korea.  How can Americans - and those of other cultures - relate?"  Here is his answer:

"Though this story is set in Korea, it's all about the universal experiences of human suffering, and triumph over adversity.  No matter where you live or what your background is, these are things that we can all relate to, understand, and be inspired by.  Americans will also be reminded to be grateful to live in a country which is beautiful, powerful, and free."

Good words to live by.

POSTSCRIPT:  I asked Jana what the Japanese thought of this book.  She said that she has many Japanese friends and acquaintances, and that modern-day Japanese do not relate to the imperialist Japanese period of WWII.

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