REVIEWED: White Chrysanthemum

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White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht (Historical/Contemporary Novel, 2018).

Korean-American Mary Lynn Bracht’s first novel is the compelling, tragic yet love-infused story of two sisters caught up in and separated by the cruelty of modern war. In 1943, Hana is 16 and Emi is several years younger, living in a coastal village on the Korean island of Jeju. Korea has been occupied by the Empire of Japan since before either was born. Yet they have every expectation of living their lives in the same proud tradition of their mother–as two of the respected, even somewhat famous all-female ocean free-divers who gather the bounty of the near-ocean floor (shellfish, the rare pearl, edible seaweed, etc).

Only problem: There’s a war on and the Japanese have begun enslaving young Korean women (and others) as sex slaves for their battle-weary soldiers. These “Comfort Women” face horrific abuse and the overpowering shame of becoming unwilling prostitutes in a land unwilling to understand.

One day, faced with a squad of woman-hungry soldiers on the beach, Hana successfully hides her younger sister but is carried off herself. The two will never be together again–Hana brought to recently conquered Manchuria and installed in a grim brothel where even her name is taken from her (each girl is re-named for a different flower and when one dies, another is brought in and becomes, for example, Lotus 2 or 3 or 4, depending on how many Comfort Women have borne that particular pseudonym at that particular brothel). Photos of each is displayed at the building’s entrance, so soldiers can pick out which woman they want–like items on a fast food menu.

Meanwhile, Emi is able to stay with her heartsick family, but left with searing survivor’s guilt she’ll carry the rest of her life.

Bracht skillfully blends historical fact with fictional characters by alternating chapters between the sisters and two time frames: Hana frightful experiences in 1943 and Emi as an elderly, ill (and still deeply tramautized) woman in the modern South Korea of 2011.

The latter date is no random choice of the author’s. By the early 21st century, many surviving Comfort Women had bravely gone public and begun, among other things, weekly protest rallies alongside supporters in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. They wanted Japan to admit to and apologize for the abuses of the past. And now, the latest part of that is the image of one young Comfort Woman in the form of a new “Statue of Peace” being unveiled across from the Embassy.

Emi has never dared talk of her experiences. Her grown children have no idea they even had an Aunt, let alone what might have happened to her! Keeping it all inside, added to the experiences Emi later endured in a loveless forced marriage to a South Korean policeman during the vicious years around the Korean War, have left her profoundly damaged. But now, visiting the Capital and seeing an all-too-familiar face represented on that statue pushes Emi to reveal the truth to her children. The disclosures free her soul and helps her middle-aged kids finally gain an understanding of their mother’s many inexplicably repressed and depressed moods. Now at last, she comes to feel a degree of relief and closure, even as she is dying.

Meanwhile, back in 1943, an obssessed Japanese soldier provides Hana with an unexpected and not entirely welcome means of escape. He carries her off to semi-neutral Mongolia, near the Soviet border. He’s no hero, of course, but the same brutal corporal who first abducted her and an opium smuggling deserter (not to mention a possible spy, who falls prey to a Soviet army patrol).

Hana finds a new life, a degree of contentment (maybe even love, it’s strongly hinted) with a family of Mongolians who took her in and managed to avoid the Soviets.

Overall, this one is a very capable first-novel, dealing with a too-little-known aspect of recent history with compassion and honesty.

 

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