This is a fantastic book and I hope it finds a wide readership. I think it would spark some great discussion in high school or college history or literature courses (or for home schoolers). It is certainly an important addition to the genre of war literature.
Blossoms and Bayonets is historical fiction based on the life of coauthor Hi-Dong Chai who was a boy in Seoul, Korea during World War II.
The novel opens on February 23, 1942 and ends on November 1, 1945. The story is told through three main characters:
- He-Seung, a sixteen year old high school boy who is full of anger primarily towards the Japanese who are attempting to eradicate Korean culture and superimpose their own culture. He is also angry at his father, a Christian pastor who seems to He-Seung like he is doing nothing to oppose the Japanese yet he doesn’t come close to sparing the rod on his own children.
- Baby He-Dong, He-Seung’s younger brother who is in 2nd grade at the start of the novel and a bit of a mamma’s boy in his older brother’s eyes. He-Dong tries to honor is father, mother, and older brother. He lives in fear of almost everyone and is tormented by the fear of not doing the right thing and God punishing his family as a result. My heart went out to him for this–whatever brand of Christianity his father followed, it wasn’t one that gave a young boy comfort.
- Mother (Uhmony), an obedient wife and loving mother. At the beginning of the book she’s a bit of a doormat, doing her best to serve her husband and sons (there are three sons total, the eldest is off studying) and not thinking much beyond the congregation that her husband oversees. Like many women of her time and station, she’s illiterate. The changes happening around her are confusing, but after her husband is arrested she’s forced to start taking some initiative on her own.
This is a story what one family and their friends endure during foreign occupation and war. However, it’s not simply a series of horrible vignettes, but rather shows how each family member coped with what they were dealt and how they were changed by what they experienced as individuals and collectively. He-Seung, He-Dong, and Mother are characters I’ll not forget anytime soon.
There is so much packed into this book, yet it reads smoothly: how the Japanese attempt to control the Koreans–from making them take out their Rose of Sharon and planting Cherry Blossoms, to forbidding the speaking of Korean in school, to mandating only the Emperor of Japan be worshiped– the atrocity of Japanese comfort woman, the place of women in Korean society and in the family, sibling relations & hierarchy, the building of the railroad along the Burma border (think of the movie Bridge on the River Kwai), the fierce fighting on Okinawa, the coverup of Japanese bombing in Oregon, the US reneging on freeing Korea and giving half to Russia, and the attraction of communism are just some of the historical realities woven into the story.
The Korean folk tale of the Story Bag plays a big role, both directly and symbolically.
The chapters are short and alternate between the three characters making the book compulsively readable. Quotes from historians and the big players of the day begin each chapter which gives context to the chapter and the book over-all. You get a feel for the attitude and prejudices of the period.
But mainly it’s caring about these characters that made the book one I couldn’t wait to get back to reading. It also whetted my appetite to learn more about Korean history and for some kimchee!
- Blossoms and Bayonets: A story of love, faith, and courage under Japanese Occupation
- Jana McBurney-Lin and Hi-Dong Chai
- Redwood Publishing, 2012
- Source: review copy via TLC Book Tours
- 5/5 stars: recommend to readers of historical fiction, war fiction, WWII, and those interested in Korea.
I'm glad you enjoyed the book, and I appreciate your wonderful review. I'm also interested in getting this book into schools. For, as you said, it would spark some great discussions. I also personally feel that it's much easier to digest history as a story. So if you have thoughts on how to do best approach schools, please let me know.
Thanks again for your review and for including me on your tour.
Hi Jana–I know from friends who teach at the high school level that it can be almost impossible to make changes to the reading curriculum. You might have better luck at the college level. I can see history, English, and even creative writing teachers being interested as memoir writing is popular. Community colleges that have continuing ed often have some sort of memoir/life writing seminar or day workshop, but you probably know that already. Maybe offer to do evening talks at the colleges when the new semester beings? Sorry I'm not much help, but thank you for your wonderful book and for reading my review.
I appreciate your ideas. If you ever run into people at the college level, I hope you'll suggest Blossoms and Bayonets. Thanks again for reading and reviewing. Best wishes,
I'm glad to see that you connected with these characters and that they kept drawing you back to read more. Thanks for being a part of the tour!