There is nothing better than a well researched historical fiction novel. This book was extensive in its detail of the fictional lives of its two principal protagonists Mi-Ja and Young-Sook. It was was a book seeped in detail, filled with sorrow, and the ideal of friendship, and although hard to conceptualize at times, the things these women endured, it was a riveting story of strength, valor, and fortitude.
On the tiny island of Jeju in South Korea, live the “Sea Women”, the haenyeo. Starting at a young age under the tutelage of their elders, girls undergo rigorous training to dive the depths of the ocean and harvest sea urchins, octopus, and other delicacies from the ocean floor. And they do it in icy waters wearing only a thin, homemade cotton swim costume, with no oxygen tank or other diving apparatus. The sea not only gives them life, it is their life.
In a role reversal uncommon for the times, the women provided for their families while the men stayed home to take care of the home and children. It was a hard life with a level of subsistence poverty unknown to most of us.
You know going into a Lisa See novel that the depth of research into her subject is remarkable. When reading a historical fiction book, I need to trust that the author has his or her facts correct and doesn’t play loose with the truth. And that is exactly what we get with this author.
But the heart of this story, which spans seventy years, is the friendship between two young women, Young-sook and Mi-ja. Mi-Ja was orphaned at a young age and taken in by an aunt and uncle who were cruel and abusive. Young-sook was the daughter of the head of the diving collective, a position of honor and respect that would one day fall to Young-sook. The girls form a strong friendship and bond and were like sisters, vowing to always remain together.
Political turmoil and upheaval eventually sets their lives on a different course and one of the girls commits an unforgivable act that severs the relationship for decades. I loved the themes of friendship, betrayal, guilt, and forgiveness that these two women embodied. No one does complex, powerful female friendships quite like Lisa See, and there was a strong theme of female relationships among the families and diving collective.
The novel spans decades, and includes the Japanese occupation of the island in the ‘30s and ‘40s, WWII, the Korean War, the communist insurgency, and the April 3, 1948 uprising that led to deaths in the tens of thousands. The horrendous conditions and the brutality were often difficult to read, but the history is important for us to know.
This is historical fiction at its best and made for a fantastic buddy read with my friend Marialyce. It opened us up to a world we didn’t know existed. History came alive, seamlessly woven into the story of the women. I turned the last page enriched by the experience of my reading, and was left with an awe and admiration for these women of the sea and their strength, both physical and mental.
Even if you don’t plan to read this book (although I urge you to do so) please visit Lisa See’s (spoiler-free) website where you can follow links to see the research the author conducted for the book, see the pictures, and read of the ancient traditions of the haenyeo, which continues to this day.
** I started out both listening and reading this in print but ended up preferring the audiobook, by far. I went back to the print only for the names and once again to re-read over the uprising sections. The narrator, Jennifer Lim, was superb.
Mi-Ja and Young-Sook are the best of friends. They anxiously look forward to their beginnings in a group of women who troll the sea floor and its environs looking for sea creatures that they could sell. They join a cast of women, led by Young-Sook’s mother, who experience not only the rigors of the dive, but also the cold water, the dangers, and the threat that everyday might be their last one. They are the baby divers trained to withstand conditions that test not only their bodies but their souls. “You may not know this, but the cold-water stress that the haenyeo endure is greater than for any other human group in the world.”
As they grow to form partnerships, they experience sorrow and sadness. For not only are they under the duress of their diving but they as living on Jeju island where they are undergoing the realities of the times. From the Japanese control through World War 2 and the Korean War, their lives are hanging in the balance of conflict and hardship. The two fast friends experience so much sadness and through circumstances of the times, they grow apart and become estranged from each other. Their friendship breaks apart as each girl experiences her own personal hell. Yet, each one survives to see change, to see a world so different from the one they knew, to see that life and friendship often go on to an end that is blessed with a final understanding as a place for peace of the heart, mind, and soul.
“Every woman who enters the sea carries a coffin on her back,” she warned the gathering. “In this world, in the undersea world, we tow the burdens of a hard life. We are crossing between life and death every day”,
Yet they survive and as times change and their families grow, they learn that what they once had was something special, something that they alone could hold claim to, something the world and the sea made them become.
Told through extensive research, this book opened up a world that I never knew of. It became a source of wonder for this reader as I read of the indomitable spirit of these women, the struggles that would seem to be crushing, and the will to go forward and be what they were born to be…….women of the sea.
This was another book with with my book buddy, Jan. We both so appreciated the exquisite research that went into making this story come into being.
and here’s the author
Lisa See is an American writer and novelist. Her books include On Gold Mountain: The One-Hundred-Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family (1995), a detailed account of See’s family history, and the novels Flower Net (1997), The Interior (1999), Dragon Bones (2003), Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005), Peony in Love (2007) and Shanghai Girls (2009), which made it to the 2010 New York Times bestseller list. Both Shanghai Girls and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan received honorable mentions from the Asian/Pacific American Awards for Literature.
See’s novel, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane (2017), is a powerful story about circumstances, culture, and distance. It paints an unforgettable portrait of a little known region and its people and celebrates the bond of family.
See’s most recent novel, The Island of Sea Women, is a story about female friendship and family secrets on Jeju Island before, during and in the aftermath of the Korean War. It was released on March 5, 2019.
Lisa See was born in Paris, France, on February 18, 1955,but has spent many years in Los Angeles, especially Los Angeles Chinatown. Her mother, Carolyn See, was also a writer and novelist. Her autobiography provides insight into her daughter’s life. Lisa See graduated with a B.A. from Loyola Marymount University in 1979.
Her paternal great-grandfather was Chinese, making her one-eighth Chinese. This has had a great impact on her life and work. She has written for and led in many cultural events emphasizing the importance of Los Angeles and Chinatown. Among her awards and recognitions are the Organization of Chinese Americans Women’s 2001 award as National Woman of the Year and the 2003 History Makers Award presented by the Chinese American Museum. See serves as a Los Angeles City Commissioner. (Wikipedia)