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Pachinko, Min Jin Lee, Grand Central Publishing/Hachette, 2017, 485 pp
I loved this saga of a Korean family spanning three generations and almost 90 years. It touched me emotionally, as both the female and male characters had to face hard challenges. It enlightened me as to Korean history and like several books I have read this year, the history is filtered through the lives of the characters. I enjoy learning this way.
If you look at a map, you see that Korea is a peninsula jutting out from the east coast of China between the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan. Just 120 miles further southeast lies Japan. In 1910, Japan annexed Korea, making it their protectorate. From that time until the late 1980s, Koreans were first under Japanese rule and then, after WWII, either under Soviet or Chinese influence in the North or American in the South. The Japanese ran a protracted campaign to exterminate Korea as a nation, banning the language, religion and culture. Koreans were forced to take Japanese names and to support the Japanese war effort during WWII, either providing soldiers or "comfort women" for the military.
The upshot of all this was to make Koreans into second-class citizens and causing them to live under stereotypes not unlike what African Americans are subject to in the United States. The story opens with a quick look back at the married life of a Korean fisherman and his wife, how they came to run a boarding house for fishermen, how they found a wife for their only surviving son despite his cleft palate and twisted foot. This couple, Hoonie and Yangin, lost three babies in infancy but finally Sunja, a daughter, survived, thrived, and becomes the heroine of the novel. The guiding principal was survival.
So you see that nothing came easy for anyone and the struggle continues throughout the story. Even after Sunja relocates to Japan, hardships are ever present. The women work from daybreak to bedtime, and though the saying is that women are born to suffer, the truth is that almost all Koreans suffer.
This is not however an unrelentingly sad tale due in large part to Sunja and her sister-in-law who form a strong bond and are the backbone of two famililes. Because of their position in society there are inevitable questionable connections made with the underworld and in fact one of Sunja's two sons achieves success with a chain of Pachinko parlors, where people play pinball and gamble. The son is not a gangster but Pachinko was traditionally associated with crime, so people assume the worst. When this man's son reaches adulthood he finally assimilates into Japanese culture but home, Korea, and identity are lost and gone.
Pachinko tells the history of 20th century Koreans in the far east with a sweeping style and a passionate force. I could not stop reading it once I started.
(Pachinko is available in hard cover and audio by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)