Monday, June 11, 2007

So Far From the Bamboo Grove

by Yoko Kawashawa Watkins. Yoko is 11 and living in northern Korea at the end of World War II. She is Japanese and her father works in Manchuria, just over the border in China. Yoko and her mother and sister are forced to flee their home when Korean forces begin to take control from the Japanese. They have many harrowing adventures and escape murder, rape and starvation on a daily basis for over a year. Finally Yoko and her sister make a new life for themselves at home in Japan and are joined by their older brother.

This story was exciting to read but full of pain and anguish. It wore on me because I read it all in one sitting during my son's nap time on Saturday afternoon. It is almost too horrible a story to believe, but it is true and Yoko is a real person.

I lived in the northern Chinese province of Heilongjiang for two years teaching English. There were quite a few Koreans living in China at the time and there was a visible legacy of Russian influence as well. We saw Russian architecture and bought Russian bread when we visited the big city of Harbin. Our school liaison was a Chinese-Korean man whose family had been living there since WW II. He enjoyed taking us to Korean restaurants. He was embarrassed to admit that many Chinese people thought Koreans were dirty and disgusting enough to eat dogs. One of the Americans I was teaching with could speak fluent Korean and he delighted in talking with her in his native language. I think he felt mistreated and disrespected many times. I witnessed the racism and animosity felt between ethnic Han Chinese, other Chinese minorities, Koreans and Japanese. The feelings toward the Japanese, who had occupied the area just forty years previously, were thinly veiled animosity and disdain. I knew people whose family members had been imprisoned, beaten, tortured, raped and murdered by the Japanese army. Many white Americans may not not aware of it, but these groups have a long and painful history of racism and abuse.

It is really interesting to me to read this story from the perspective of a Japanese girl who was living in Korea. Just before the story starts she is in a position of wealth and privilege, being a member of the occupying elite. The story tells what happens to the women in the families of the powerful men on the losing side of the war as they are fleeing refugees. I can't help but try to imagine what it would be like if America comes to that position and I am one of the women fleeing with my children, trying to stay alive after being so comfortable and privileged for so long.

Anyone else read this book? If you have connections to Korea, China or Japan it makes it really fascinating and I would love to chat with you about it. If you are reading it with your children or students I'd love to hear what they think.

More links:
Study guide
Sample student essay
Parents Choice award
Discussion Questions


Liz B said...

This was one of my 48 Hour Books, also!

I read it in part because of the controversy (as reported at As If and Bookshelves of Doom.)

Having finished it, while I agree that some background information could have been better handled (ie Japanese v Korean), I didn't find it anti or pro any one nationality. I did wonder at how the Kyoto classmates could survive the war so unscathed and so unsympathetic to Yoko's plight; and it showed that the Japanese weren't painted in a very sympathetic light (also, it's the Japanese soldiers who take the mother's glasses & other family mementos at the start of the book.)

I liked it; it reminded me of Escape from Warsaw/The Silver Sword; especially in how it was about a family becoming refugees, losing so much, then struggling to stay a family.

Anonymous said...

I read this book first when I was a kid and I loved it. I've read it a couple of times since and still have my childhood copy. I don't know why it stuck with me so much. Maybe because it was about the women (rather than the men) and the writing is so evocative. I remember descriptions of the equipment for calligraphy and places they hide just being fascinating to me. I really did love this book and I'm glad you found it interesting. It's been maybe eight years now since the last time I read it and I really should pick it up again!

Anonymous said...

This book is moral sewage. You can't stop at the fact it is a nice, well-written, survival story. It's akin to a nice sympathetic survival story of a Nazi gas chamber operator's family's escape back to Germany after the Nazi's lost.

Don't be fooled by this fraudulent book.