Friday, January 15

Review: The Calligrapher's Daughter










 The Calligrapher's Daughter is set in early 20th century Korea, but the exploration of culture, women's rights, the desire for education and war recalls the themes of Fear of Beauty. A woman grows up in a family with Confucian values, prioritizing the status of men and and tradition. But the family is also Christian - and the author points out in a historical note at the book's end that "Korea is the only nation in the world where Christianity first took root without the presence of priests or missionaries, but exclusively as a result of the written world - Bibles, translated into Chinese by Jesuits, that a Korean scholar-official brought home from diplomatic trip to Beijing in 1631."

Author Eugenia Kim weaves the girl's story with Korean history from 1915 through the end of World War II. The child's father is disappointed by political change underway since her birth in 1910, due to Japanese control, and the fact that his first child is a girl, so he does not give her name and blames her for a long list of woes. Such humble beginnings do not dampen the girl's spirit or determination to pursue education and a career, partly due to her mother's deep and unconditional love. Those denied an education can become the most motivated students, as I explored in Fear of Beauty. Students can also benefit from a slow start that forces them to develop their own motivation. As the main character's husband recalls from his early childhood: "I read a chapter from Pilgrim's Progress and can still hear the murmurs of surprise. My father says this is the reason I was such a lazy student - too much pride, too early."

The mother encourages her daughter, remembering her own childhood experiences, sitting outside her brothers' classrooms to learn on her own: "She had longed to study the history of the Bible, the history of its writing, to see how... mere words had come to mean so much to so many." As I have written and taught in Sunday school classes, knowledge of the Bible is essential for literary studies

Of course true learning requires critical thinking, and that includes questions and doubt in addition to faith. The protagonists in both books share such doubts and the ability to pose questions.

Korean society requires men and women to hide their emotions and the protagonist in The Calligrapher's Daughter struggles after her marriage, arranged hastily before her husband's travel to the United States for studies. The Japanese occupiers deny the protagonist's visa application, and the couple is separated until the war's end in 1945.

Some other readers describe this book slow, but I found it especially suspenseful throughout knowing that the family lived in Gaeseong with the turmoil of occupation politics. That city was part of US-occupied South Korea in 1945, but was then transferred to North Korea in 1953 with the signing of the Armistice. Today, the city so close to the north-south border is a place for many exchanges between the two Koreas. In the book, the family is distraught when the Japanese take their home, relocating them to Seoul, but in the end, that can be viewed as a major blessing.  

I am grateful for this historical novel that provides context to WWII and the Korean War because my uncle Willliam Froetschel served in the latter: 

"Private Froetschel, a Medical Aidman, volunteered to accompany a raiding party into enemy territory. As they moved out from friendly positions and up a valley into hostile territory, the enemy suddenly opened fire with automatic weapons, seriously wounding one man and temporarily halting the rest of the patrol. Private Froetschel, with complete disregard for personal safety, ran through the heavy machine gun and mortar fire to reach the wounded man. After stopping the profuse bleeding from the wounded man’s leg, and helping him to the comparative safety of a draw, Private Froetschel returned to the fire swept area and attended to the wounds of another man who had been seriously wounded, and required his personal attention all the way back to the aid station. Private Froetschel was directly responsible for saving the lives of these two men and his heroic actions were an inspiration to all who observed him."

I hope the author considers writing a sequel.

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