(Buy it HERE.)
This middle-grade book by Newbery-medal-winning Korean-American author Linda Sue Park explores an episode of history that seems curiously underexposed, if my own world history and Asian history classes in school are any indication. When My Name Is Keoko is set during the oppressive Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1940s. Pause for a second. Did you know that had happened? Personally, I had only the vaguest idea of the extent of it before I moved to Korea myself, and I feel like I’m always learning new things about the struggles both Koreas went through to get to their present realities every time I talk to an old person here for more than five minutes.⠀
This book introduces us to that under-shared time period by telling the stories of Sun-Hee and her older brother Tae-Yul, Korean school kids growing up in their own occupied country. Father is a school teacher, Mother is a housewife, and beloved Uncle is a newspaper printer with a poorly hidden revolutionary streak. As the siblings grow up, the Japanese close their fist ever tighter around Korea, going so far as to forcibly change the family’s Korean names to Japanese ones. Then WWII breaks out, and the family find themselves making difficult decisions that will change not only their home but the future of their country. ⠀
Oppression weaves tough threads through cultures that can bind them to each other in surprising ways. While reading this there were things–the theft of names and language, enforced systematic inequality, the power of community conspiracy, and the need to fake subservience while revolution bubbles and smokes in your heart–that resonated very strongly with stories from my own Black American background. Other things were wholly new to me and I found the final act of the story equal parts surprising, fascinating and, well…incredibly cheesy. Whatever, it’s a kid’s book so it gets a pass. Overall, it’s a well-written, sympathetic and enlightening read.
One more thing–this is a bit controversial, but I think it’s worth mentioning here. No matter who is right and wrong in a war, it is always children who suffer most, and I do want to alert you all to another middle-grade children’s novel told from the opposing perspective, that of the children of Japanese imperialists and what happened to them after occupation. That book is Yoko Kawashima Watkins‘ So Far From The Bamboo Grove, and while it is surrounded by a boatload of controversy and backlash , as a complete outsider to the historical conflicts between Japan and Korea, I found it to be an interesting companion volume. Your mileage may vary. I will say that of the two novels, I enjoyed Park’s much more.
Four stars and a handful of precious white rice to When My Name Was Keoko.
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