I don’t often do book reviews because I read a lot of books that are kind of off the beaten path.  What can I say?  I’m a bit of an oddball – I like science fiction, self-help/inspirational books, and I adore brainy type stuff like Freakonomics and Predictably Irrational.  So rather than confirm what an oddball I am, I just quietly read my books and don’t share much about them on my blog.  

However, this month, I read more of a mainstream book and I enjoyed it enough to want to share it with you.  The Calligrapher’s Daughter by Eugenia Kim.

The thing I found the most interesting about this book was that it made me realize how little I know about Korea.  I’ve read numerous books about China and Japan, but Korea is almost like that middle child that gets overlooked in the shuffle.  This book takes place just prior to WWII when Japan had essentially done a hostile takeover of the entire country of Korea.  

I had the typical public school education, so geography and history (other than a bit of American history) weren’t big topics of discussion, so I was pretty clueless about this whole segment of history.  

After reading this book, I was trying to explain it to my 14 year old son – imagine if China or Russia came in and took over the United States in just a matter of weeks.  They could force people out of their homes, freely beat, terrorize, and imprison us for the slightest rule infraction, take over our businesses, and require us to employ their people instead of our own, conscript our young men for their army, take over our schools and outlaw the teaching of our American history or language, depose our President and kill his family, eliminate all our holidays and traditions to force their own on us, and do their best to starve our population into submission.  It was really pretty horrifying – thousands of years of culture, tradition, and history wiped out in less than a generation.  Kind of amazing that this story wasn’t as widely known as, say the invasion of Nazi Germany because it was a somewhat similar story.  

Many thousands of Korean people died during this time and their country was forever changed.  It sounds like virtually every family in their country was affected by these sweeping and immediate changes, and the only thing that saved them was US military intervention in the form of the atom bomb.  The bombs that went off in Nagasaki and Hiroshima were intended to put a stop to WWII, but they also had the side-effect of forcing the Japanese to abandon their conquest of Korea and start to bring the country back to normal.  

The story begins just a few years before the Japanese invasion.  They are a very traditional Korean family and the father, obviously is a very famous calligrapher.  The story focuses on his daughter and later, his son.  In the beginning, he’s a very traditional Confucian scholar who is trying to hold onto thousands of years of tradition, but in time, he has no choice but to change and modernize his outlook to adjust to the changes in his world.  

The daughter ends up having a pretty amazing life for a woman of her times.  Through a serious of hard work and good luck, she ends up getting a good enough education to become an educator, companion to a royal princess, a school Principal, and ultimately a midwife and medical professional.  Considering what is going on in the country and the various misfortunes they encounter, it’s pretty amazing that she succeeds as well as she does.  You can really see a lot of growth and depth in the character.  

The brother is an interesting character too.  They waited so long for a son that the family completely goes off the deep end in spoiling him and overindulging him to the point where he ends up – predictably, to be a spoiled mess, particularly in comparison to the overly successful sister.  But, I guess due to the traditional nature of the family, her success is never fully acknowledged nor is his failure.  

I think the problem with the book is that it got a little depressing.  Things got bad, then got worse, then got horrible, then got really awful, then at the end, it suddenly merged into a moderately happy ending.  It was a little confusing.  Some of it couldn’t be helped because that’s the way the history went, but a lot of it was plot development and it could have been a bit more even.  

On the whole, I think it’s a good book, very interesting and it certainly held my attention.  I’d suggest you give it a read.  
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