Now this is historical fiction! Before We Were Yours is a story crafted around a real criminal ringleader and her malicious business of kidnapping children from poor families in Tennessee and beyond and “adopting” them out to wealthy clients. Georgia Tann, the mastermind, never faced criminal charges, dying of cancer before she faced justice. Even more tragic, papers were only released to the public in the 1990s, long after the children were kidnapped illegally from their families during the Great Depression. Wingate does an incredible job of illuminating a period of American history most people have no idea existed, creating the world of Rill Foss and her siblings Camelia, Fern, Lark and baby Gabeon as Rill tries to keep them together in the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.
Wingate employs a literary style where she alternates between the stories of the Foss siblings, told from eldest sister Rill’s perspective and the voice of young woman Avery Stafford, from the present day as she pieces together a dark family history. The Foss siblings were born to Queenie and Briny, living their lives on a shanty boat floating down the Mississippi River during the 1930s. Like many other poor families, river people went were the current carried them, docking on the shores for rest in cases of emergency. After Briny rushes Queenie to the hospital as she begins labor, the children are left for the night, expecting their parents to return to the boat once the baby is born. Hours turn into days and soon policemen converge onto the boat, forcibly taking all five children Georgia Tann. One by one they are separated, but not before enduring suffering at the hands of Tann and the other “caregivers” as they are cruelly disciplined. Meanwhile, Avery, the daughter of prominent senator, stumbles across a number of concerning clues about her grandmother’s past. Concerned there’s a possible scandal that could ruin her father’s political career and family name, she pursues leads relentlessly, trying to find out behind the backs of her family members and ailing grandmother what dealings the family had with the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Wingate does a great job going back and forth from Rill’s to Avery’s stories, converging their lives at the end of the novel with great emotion.
While the ending confused me a bit (as it seems to have confused other readers), the rest of the narrative is craftily executed. My only regret is that I didn’t pick up this book sooner. The unassuming cover art didn’t compel me to prioritize this book but I guess the saying’s true: don’t judge a book by it’s… (uninteresting looking) cover.
Set across France, The Nightingale is a story about the plight of two sisters during WWII and how they both face immeasurable trials to keep themselves and those they love alive. The younger sister’s name is Isabelle, an infuriatingly headstrong 19 year old who won’t take “no” for an answer. Since young, she’d been pushed away by their father and sent to a number of boarding schools to learn how to be a civilized young woman– but to no one’s surprise, she’s run away from all of them, instead seeking a cause to dedicate herself to. When the war breaks out, Isabelle is livid that the French government has, in her eyes, barely put up a fight, surrendering to the Nazis leaving millions of helpless French to become prisoners in their own homes. On her way to her sister’s she stumbles across Gaetan, a former prisoner who she falls deeply in love with. As a much older man, he chides her for ignorance and inability to really understand what war will bring and the consequences of the blatant fury she carries so openly. Later, unable to sit idly by, Isabelle is overcome with intense drive and is able to join a top-secret resistance group, becoming “the nightingale,” helping to smuggle out downed Allied airmen out of France through the Pyrenees. Meanwhile, Vianne, ten years Isabelle’s senior, is markedly different. To escape her father’s spite, she married, left Paris and moved to the sleepy village of Carriveau where she is a teacher and raising a young daughter Sophie. Her husband, Antione, is forcibly conscripted into the French army and sent to war, leaving her and Sophie behind in a village of women and children. Her will to live sharpens and she becomes completely focused on caring for her daughter and keeping her out of harms way. Eventually, a Nazi soldier moves into her home and she stays quiet, obeying his commands. When he asks her to write down all the names of the Jewish people, Communists and Freemasons she knows, she naively and willingly writes a list down, including the names of her best friend Rachel and Rachel’s two children. When Isabelle is sent from Paris to live with her, they clash, Isabelle furious that Vianne is so resigned and submissive to the enemy and Vianne upset that Isabelle would defy a Nazi in their home and put Sophie at risk. After Isabelle leaves to join the resistance without Vianne’s knowledge, Vianne is left to weather the storm and things turn for the worse when another Nazi moves in her home, preying upon Vianne and impregnating her.
I put this book on my priority list because of how well it’s rated on Goodreads. The book does get better after the beginning, when Isabelle’s honestly annoying, entitled, bratty self falls for Gaetan and is “heartbroken” when he leaves her at her sister’s house. I was afraid that this adolescent love story would mar the potential of the story. There aren’t too many books about WWII following the lives of young women, let alone stories that have multi-dimensional women rebelling in ways that don’t involve battlefields. Overall I did enjoy the book but I felt that Isabelle’s strikingly immature “love” as one of the first scenes the reader gets to know her, leaves a bitter taste among her other traits such as putting other people in serious danger due to her immaturity and failure to think things through. Vianne, on the other hand goes through a much more natural character evolution, one that was much better carried out I felt. Her struggle to survive becomes more than just a struggle to live, but a struggle to find dignity in her life, despite living destitute, being raped and taking in Rachel’s Jewish toddler and hiding him.
I, like many other readers, found parts of the narrative to be a little be contrived; someone wrote in a review that it seemed the author did some basic research about some of the more horrific crimes committed and then weaved them all into the story. I felt this to be somewhat true as seemingly ever worst case movie-like scenario took place, but the character got away, just in the nick of time. As a reader, I was never left guessing what would happen next because it became fairly predictable: Isabelle would start thinking before she opened her mouth, Vianne would grow a pair, their father would feel remorseful and make some big sacrifice, Gaetan would come back in some capacity, Sophie would survive but grow up scarred. I am by no means trying to spoil anything, but as a reader, if you trust your gut, the story will most likely turn out the way you suspect it will.
Human Acts is one of the more difficult books I’ve ever read. The descriptions of such overt violence and the suffering of the characters is hard to bear, knowing you are powerless in this story. I had never heard of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising or the Korean dictators Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan. I could not believe this book was historical fiction, that the Gwangju Uprising isn’t known or even remembered in most of the world. There are only estimates of how many people were killed, 600, almost all students or young adults, the youngest of victims still in middle school. The story follows six main characters: Dong-ho, a fifteen year old boy who is looking for his best friend, his best friend who unbeknownst to Dong-ho has already been killed, an editor struggling against censorship, a prisoner being tortured for his involvement in the demonstrations, a factory worker being pestered by an author to share her story, and the best friend’s grieving mother as each recalls their involvement, their torture and their nightmarish trauma.
Originally written in Korean, I wondered what had been lost or muddled in the translation. Given the massacre was in 1980, most Koreans are probably aware of what happened and have knowledge regarding the political climate of the time. I, however, was completely unaware of these events, and found myself a little lost because of the absence of context. Context isn’t necessary to read the book and understand what happened, but knowing why would certainly enhance the reading process. As Korea was plagued by political instability following the assassination of Park Chung-hee, Chun Doo-hwan, Park’s protégé assumed power through a coup d’état and implemented martial law, believing North Korea was going to attack the South. Chun ordered universities and political activities to shut down and sent the military to occupy all urban areas to police citizens. However, due to the handover in political power, the democratization movement was gaining momentum, having been previously suppressed by Park. On the 18th of May, protesting the closure of their university, some 200 students gathered and military troops clamped down, killing an unknown number by clubbing, using bayonets and firing into the crowd. Two days later, the number of protestors swelled to over 10,000, and Chun ordered an all-out suppression by killing anyone involved. On May 27th, civilian militias had been defeated the Korean military.
In the epilogue, Kang writes about her recollections of the Gwangju Uprising at age nine. Her family had just moved from Gwangju where her father had been a teacher at a local school. She recalls her father and aunt speaking in low voices in the kitchen about a young student named Dong-ho who was killed during the massacre. The novel centers around Dong-ho, a boy who goes looking for his best friend, Jeong-dae who has disappeared during the uprising. Jeong-dae and his older sister lived in Dong-ho’s family home on the top floor and they had been as close as brothers. Dong-ho doesn’t know if Jeong-dae was killed or was injured, so he goes to where the bodies have been sent and is roped into helping cover the newly arrived corpses as family members come looking for their lost loved ones. Completely overwhelmed, Dong-ho goes to the center of the action looking for his friend and is murdered. He is fifteen.
Each chapter weaves through each character’s past and present, as even the deceased characters recall the time of their deaths, their aspirations and the trauma inflicted on their bodies. The prisoner recalls the routine torture and what happened after finally being released. He’s haunted by the years in prison, by the pen used to inflict pain, by the face of the prisoner he was forced to split meals with. He’s haunted by the suicide of acquaintances, the visceral dreams he experiences and the drone of life he struggles to live. Kang makes clear how each of the characters suffer in profound ways even after they are released from prison and are no longer being physically tortured. Drowning in grief and anger, confusion and hysteria, no two characters suffer in the same way, yet they are bound to constantly reliving traumatic memories both while awake and asleep.
After reading Human Acts I find myself questioning why all this violence is possible in so many permutations. Is violence a cycle? A default? A norm? I would think that the Japanese Occupation in Korea, World War II, the Korean War, these events would drive all Koreans to put peace above all, but it seems ego triumphs no matter what. The Gwangju Uprising, where thousands of students tried to incite political change peacefully ended up being one of the most violent demonstrations in modern history. I feel grateful that Kang and those she spoke to were able to find it in themselves to speak about the events that occurred just decades ago so that readers like myself might stumble across the book and try to understand why things like this happen. Grief and terror are such universal emotions, and Kang’s novel transmits these feelings tenfold to the reader, leaving you stunned and longing for peace.
“Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel? Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species? Is the dignity that we cling to nothing but self-delusion, masking from ourselves this single truth: that each one of us us capable of being reduced to an insect, a ravening beast, a lump of meat? To be degraded, damaged, slaughtered– is this the essential fate of humankind, one that history has confirmed as inevitable?”
Over the past two years or so, I’ve seen this book everywhere– from high-end department store bookstores to airport kiosks– Pachinko was not a book that stuck out to me, at least, not enough to make me immediately want to read it. But I did mark this book down in my Goodreads account a half year ago. After thinking the book might be a good one to start on my way to Japan (as the story of Sunja and the many characters in her orbit eventually takes the reader), I finally picked it up.
I don’t know how to start off other than by writing: this story was extremely heart-wrenching and uncomfortable to read. Page after page tells the story of Sunja and her family during the period from the early 1920s, beginning with the Japanese occupation of Korea and ending in the 1960s with Japan’s imminent defeat during WWII by Allied Powers. I found the story to be difficult to read due to the repeated battering each character endured and suffered, dealing with themes of starvation, rape, religious persecution, suicide, patriarchy and racism to name a few. About halfway through the book, what really got to me were glimmers of hope the characters seemed to almost grasp, but then were consequently squashed somehow or another by forces out of their control.
What you think is a story about Sunja, who makes what she believes to be a trans-generational sacrifice by marrying a man who is not the father of her unborn child, but who promises to keep this secret and take her as his wife, turns out to not be so clear cut. A mistake she made when she was in her early teens will haunt not just her, but the rest of her family, until the last page of the nearly 500 page book. The narrative caught me off guard– when I thought Lee might dedicate more to an event that occurred, she left the reader with little explanation. Yet strangely, at certain points, I felt that the examination of certain events or characters was extraneous. In attempting to reflect on why she omitted certain details yet lavishly explained others, perhaps in all it is a feature her character’s lived reality as second-class citizens in a country Sunja’s children and grandchildren are born in. They know what they know, and don’t ask questions, simply due to fear.
If this book was entirely fiction, I might not have finished; or it might have taken me much much longer. This book is historical fiction– I reminded myself that each event was someone’s lived reality lifted from the mortal world onto the pages. This thought is what kept me going but what also wore me down.
I visited Korea in the fall of 2017 and much to my dismay, I felt Seoul was just a carbon copy of any other East Asian metropolis– more specifically somewhere between a flashy fashion-forward Tokyo and a congested, new-money Beijing. I am not exaggerating when I say almost every young woman in Seoul looked like a copy of each another– pearl colored skin, long eyelashes, slim noses, a cropped hairdo and their boyfriends, usually a little on the heavy-side with their signature Korean male haircut, in tow. These couples were everywhere, from the streets of Seoul to seafood markets of Seoraksan. On the bus ride to Seoraksan, I was stunned how poor much of the countryside looked to be– tarps and corrugated tin roofs covering shack-like structures, worn-down machinery, and many older people working in the fields. Seemed a lot like China’s countryside, where the average person lives well below the means of their urban counterparts. In my imagination, I always thought Korea and Japan were in the same boat- historically, culturally and religiously divergent from China, and more similar to one another. But I began thinking about how Japan was never colonized by another nation looking to exploit resources and control people. They were the colonizers- Korea, Taiwan, Manchuria, Singapore, Malaysia, Austronesia and numerous other places in South East Asia. Korea had been occupied by the Japanese since 1910, a fact not visible to tourists– but nevertheless still a painful and relevant fact that Lee drove home in Pachinko. When I view Korea in light of the fact it was occupied by Japan, the site of the Korean War and other conflicts between Russians, Chinese, Japanese, and Americans, my initial judgement feels ill-informed and wrong. In considering the past century and how many people suffered at the hands of just a few egoists’ political ambitions, it makes me wonder how life can be so unjust.
And that’s just it; Sunja lives an unjust life. No matter how many sacrifices she makes to right the wrong, she can’t.