Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Historical Context can be Everything

To start the day, I went to see Norman Borlaug receive the Congressional Gold Medal. It was a pretty great way to start the day. In addition to me and Dr. Borlaug, most of the Congressional leadership was there, as well as the President. Pretty good way to start the day.

Then I get to work and find out that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is now available online. I'm not happy about this. Read all about it over Geek Buffet.

But for now, some book reviews!

So Far from the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima Watkins

One the surface, this is a gripping and exciting story of survival, based on Kawashima Watkins life. She lived a comfortable wife with her parents, older brother, and older sister in a nice house in a bamboo grove in northern Korea. With the outbreak of WWII, the Koreans rebelled against the Japanese. Yoko's father was posted to Manchuria (also under Japanese control) and her brother was taken prisoner. Yoko, her mother, and her sister, then lead a harrowing tale of escape as they try to get to Pusan so they can get to Japan. Yoko witnesses rape and is the victim of a bombing. Then, once they get there, they must survive with no money in a country ravaged by the end of the war, and try to find their missing family members.

This book was in the news a lot last year as it was challenged for classroom inclusion. The problem with this book, wasn't really the violence and rape (of which there was quite a lot for a children's book, but not gratuitously) but the lack of historical context. If you knew nothing about the Asian theater in the lead up to WWII (and most elementary school don't)... after reading this book, it'd look like the Koreans were the bad guys and the Japanese were innocent victims. After all, to a young girl, that was the way it appeared. Not only that, but there are no end notes to put the book into context. Kawashima Watkins never discusses Japan's involvement in the war, or the fact that the Japanese occupation of Korea was brutal.

The book does show that war is an awful, awful thing and there are innocent victims on both sides, it needs context for the young readers it's aimed at.

My Brother, My Sister, and I by Yoko Kawashima Watkins

This is the sequel and picks up with the Kawashima siblings fighting for survival. The book starts with a fire in their warehouse. Yoko's sister, Ko is gravely injured. Yoko and Ko are blamed with starting the fire and murdering two bodies found in the ashes. That plot wraps up about half way through the book, and the struggle to survive and find Yoko's father (who is a war prisoner in Siberia) continues.

As far as context goes, this one does not have the overwhelming problems that the first does. It's also helpful to read, because I was disappointed that Bamboo Grove did not have an epilogue. But as far as the prose goes, it lacks the gripping quality of the first. How do you tell someone their life has plotting and pacing problems? I don't know. But how the murder investigation played out seemed highly unlikely (what do I know though? I wasn't there) but more importantly, that's just the first half of the book. The second half seems a bit boring in comparison.

The one problem this book has is that it never address why Yoko's father was being held prisoner. She's always maintained he was against the war and did no wrong. Now, students of history will find it hard to believe that a Japanese official station in Manchuria during this time did no wrong. But I'm not going to go so far as those that claim he was an official at Unit 731 (a Japanese unit that carried out horrific medical experiments in Manchuria during WWII). Because I just don't know.

Both are great books that I recommend as long as they can be read in a the proper context, which is going to need some help.


Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Jennie

Again, thank you for these two excellent recommendations. I will be sure to read up a little on the Japanese-Korean war before I read the book. Yes, you're right, it is so important that authors include a little historical detail so that the reader understands what was really going on. As I type this comment, I am reminded of Kiran Desai's Booker-winning novel "The Inheritance of Loss". It was a brilliant book set against the backdrop of the Gorkha uprising in North East India. Many people came away from the book not fully appreciating the characters and situations because there was no historical context provided for the uprising. Sure these events can now be looked up on Wikipedia etc, but it's not the same.

Again, thank you for the helpful reviews.

Jennie said...

I wonder if Kawashima Watkins didn't want to include historical information, because it would make her family one of the "bad guys".

Another really big problem with this is that it's written for children, who won't necessarily realize they're missing the larger picture.

Thank you for the information on Inheritance of Loss-- that's on my TBR pile, so I'll definitely do some background research first!

I found that when I read Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa, I kept turning to the encyclopedia because I had no idea what was going on...