The Island of Sea Women

Rating: 
Author: Lisa See
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub date: Mar. 5, 2019 (read Jan. 2019)

I read The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane back in 2017 and really liked it. I’ve been meaning to read some more of Lisa See’s work ever since, but the content is quite heavy, so I keep putting it off. So when I received an early copy of The Island of Sea Women from Simon and Schuster Canada, I was excited to finally read another one of Lisa’s books!

I clearly need to prioritize reading some of her earlier works because I liked this just as much as I like the Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, maybe more!! The Island of Sea Women is about a matrifocal community of female divers on Jeju Island. Jeju Island is a large volcanic island located to the south of South Korea. It was under the control of the Japanese until the end of WWII, when it was taken over by the Americans.

What’s interesting about the island and many of its communities, is that they are mostly focused on women. Many of the traditional gender structures still exist in that men own property, the ownership is passed down through the male line, and giving birth to boys is valued because only boys can attend school and perform ancestor worship. However, the women are viewed as the providers and decision makers and the men stay home and raise the children. This is because it is the women on the island who become Haenyeo. Haenyeo are a collective of divers who are widely respected. They row offshore every day to dive in the frigid ocean for sea-life to feed their family and to sell to wealthy Japanese colonizers. The most prized catch is the abalone, but they also dive for sea urchins, octopus, squid, and other species.

See focuses her story on Young-sook. Young-sook is the daughter of a Haenyeo chief, so she learns to dive from an early age and develops a very close friendship with another girl in the community, Mi-ja. The two girls are inseparable and both join the Haenyeo collective when they come of age and travel together as young women to do leave-home diving work. However, as they grow older, their friendship is challenged and circumstances arise to drive a wedge between the two women. This book tells Young-sook’s life story, her friendship with Mi-ja, and the sad history of Jeju Island.

I was really interested in the Haenyeo culture and how they work together as a collective. I thought it was fascinating the ways that traditional gender roles were sometimes switched in this culture, but remained similar in other ways. I find diving to be fascinating (and terrifying) and I really liked learning about the Haenyeo traditions, how they would organize and dive together, and how resilient these women are. But what I really loved about this book was the way it also takes us through South Korea’s history.

I read Min Jin Lee’s book, Pachinko, last year and really liked it. It’s about a Korean family that immigrates to Japan and the challenges they faced there as immigrants. It was a good introduction the the history between Korea and Japan. This book also focuses on that conflict, but from a different angle and perspective; between the two books I learned a lot about Korea and Japan. The history covered in this book is upsetting to be sure, but it is a very good look at how Western countries can tear other countries apart in their own political disputes. Korea was split at the end of WWII, to be governed by the Soviet Union in the North and America in the South. Russia obviously promoted communism and America, democracy.

As everyone knows, American’s were extremely threatened by the rise of communism. I’m still not super familiar with Korea’s history, but from this book, it seems that there was support for communism on Jeju Island, which created conflict between the island and the rest of the Korean mainland. Rebel groups popped up among the mountain tribes on Jeju Island and fighting ensued between rebel groups and the authorities. Korea had a culture of guilt by association, whereby if a member of your family committed a crime, you were considered tainted by association. This resulted in consequential killings in which families and entire communities might be punished for the actions of an individual. The Jeju uprising officially began on April 3, 1948, and resulted in the destruction of many villages and left many people homeless.

I’ll admit, I know very little about Korea’s history, but I loved learning about it from Young-sook’s point of view. The people of Jeju had always had a tumultuous relationship with the Japanese and she observed that little changed within their communities with the end of WWII and that their power mostly just changed hands between the Japanese and the Americans. Young-sook observes that they have always been oppressed, but that Korean’s always looked after one another. However, because of differing ideologies between a democratic and communist state, she was upset to see Korean’s start to turn on one another.

From this setting, we also see how the Haenyeo were forced to change and adapt over the years and the impact the conflict had on their diving activities. The Haenyeo are still very popular, but more as a tourist attraction. The birth of daughters was also celebrated on Jeju as it ensured the financial stability of the family. However, very few girls are training to become Haenyeo these days and the collective has greatly aged, with few young women to take their places. I loved how See balances the challenges and changes to the collective along with the changing and increasingly challenging political climate on the island. It also linked in with Young-sook’s changing relationship with Mi-ja. While the novel takes us through 70 years of Korean history, at it’s core, it is a story about friendship and forgiveness.

As much as I loved this book, I do have one criticism, which is what brought my rating down from 5 stars to 4 stars. The story is told in 5 parts and progresses pretty naturally through time. However, each part starts with a flash forward to 2008. While I see some value in the 2008 timeline, I think it would have worked better as a short epilogue focused on remembering the April 3 incident and finding peace. I did not like the inclusion of Clara in the story. While Young-sook struggles with her feelings and forgiveness throughout the second half of the novel, I felt this last storyline came too late in the story and timeline. Personally, I thought the ending felt forced and manipulative. I felt like the author was trying to manipulate me into this cathartic moment at the end, but the catharsis was too late in coming and not believable to me.

Despite the ending, I still loved this book. Though the story focuses on Young-sook, I loved the exploration of Mi-ja’s story as well. The history and decisions of some of the characters were upsetting, culminating at the April 3 incident. However, I felt that they demonstrated how things can change in an instant and how in life and death situations, what might have been a well-meaning action or decision can be interpreted in the aftermath. It’s a somber realization, but it was the defining moment of Young-sook and Mi-ja’s relationship. I would definitely recommend this book.

The Island of Sea Women will be available for purchase in stores on Mar. 5th, 2019. Thanks to Scribner and Simon and Schuster Canada for providing me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

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Keeping Lucy

Rating: ⭐
Author: T. Greenwood
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub date: Aug 6, 2019 (read Jan. 2019)

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I’m a little on the fence of how to rate this book. I read Rust & Stardust last year and really liked it, so I was excited to receive a copy of T. Greenwood’s newest book, Keeping Lucy, in hopes of learning more about a period of history I didn’t know much about. I did like this book and I did learn something, but I didn’t like it quite as much as Rust & Stardust because I felt it lacked in plot.

Finding Lucy is about a family from Massachusetts in the 1970’s whose second child is born with down synodrome. Down syndrome has a sad history in the United States and the delivery doctor strongly recommended enrolling the baby, Lucy, in an institution that could better see to her needs. Her mother, Ginny, was excluded from the decision to give up the baby and years later, she struggles with the loss of her little girl. When Lucy is two years old, a journalist publishes an expose about Willowridge, Lucy’s school, that reveals the deplorable living conditions in which the children are kept. Ginny is horrified and upset by the article and travels to Willowridge for the first time to see the conditions for herself and meet her daughter.

Greenwood definitely has a unique style of writing. It is very simple and straight forward, but does an excellent job of making you feel acutely uncomfortable and anxious. Rust & Stardust was about the kidnapping of Sally Horner, the young girl who inspired Lolita, and made me feel so anxious and frustrated about the way Sally was manipulated and treated. I had a similar reaction to Keeping Lucy in that I found this part of history shocking, I was frustrated by the way the health and justice system worked in the 1970’s, particularly in how it ignores the agency of women, and I was so anxious about the decisions the characters made and the potential ramifications. I flew through the book, reading about 75% of it on a lazy saturday.

I liked that this looked at a disturbing and lesser known part of history, but unfortunately I was a little disappointed in the execution. I was expecting this book to focus on Willowridge, the poor living conditions, the pursuit of justice against the institution, and the fight for custody of the children and for people with Down Syndrome to be recognized as people with a full set of rights. Willowridge is not a real place, but I trust it was imagined based on other similar institutions. Likewise, Ginny is not a real person, but I imagine there are parents out there who unknowningly were advised to send their babies off to similar institutions. In Ginny’s case, she was more or less blindsided by her husband and father-in-law, which plays a large role in the story.

I liked Ginny’s story arc in that it highlights how little agency women had in their lives and relationships. But overall I felt the author missed an opportunity to write a more historically meaningful plot. In order for the babies to be committed to the institution, parents essentially gave up their custody rights to the state. Once the story got going, I was expecting for this to be a story about Ginny’s battle with the state to save her daughter and regain custody while fighting against the antiquanted and sexist beliefs of her father in law, who thought he was entitled to make decisions for his son and family. The story provided a great look at how the patriarchy robbed women of any power or agency and the gender dynamics that often existed in families at this time. But ultimately this story was not about a custody battle, but rather was a drawn out road trip in which Ginny tries to escape with her daughter and the trials she faces as a single woman/mother in rural America. It was an interesting story with a surprising amount of action, but meaningless in that while I understood Ginny’s desperation, her actions were drastic and not realistic. I know Ginny was only try to save her daughter from being returned to Willowridge, but her actions were short sighted and actually really harmful to the result that she wanted. She’s applauded at the end for her good motherly instincts, which I thought pretty rich because she basically just ran away from any responsibility.

Ginny and Martha made a lot of bad decisions that I felt there was really no coming back from. I disliked the ending because I thought it was extremely unlikely and absolved Ginny of any wrongdoing. (view spoiler) What I really wanted to hear about was the struggle all those other families went through in gaining custody of their children and what legal actions were taken against the institutions for their neglect. People with Down Syndrome had to fight for their legal rights, care, and education, and I would have much preferred to learn more about that.

The story did hold my interest throughout the whole book and I sped through it, but the longer GInny and Martha spent on the road, the more I wondered what the whole point was. I didn’t expect them to be on the run for so long and I was really surprised when it ended up being the main plotline of the story. This is a fascinating part of history and I really just wish we had gotten a different story. I won’t fault the author because she did still deliver on a fast paced and interesting story, but personally, it just wasn’t the story I was hoping for and I thought it was a bit of a missed opportunity. I’m still giving it 3 stars because I did learn something and I thought the writing was pretty good, but overall it just left me wanting more.

Rose Under Fire

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Elizabeth E. Wein
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub date: June 2013 (read Dec. 2018)

I liked, but didn’t love, the first book in this series, Code Name Verity. It was a good book, but it felt a little slow moving to me and I struggled to get into it, so I wasn’t super enthused about reading the second one, but I already owned a copy and I knew if I didn’t read it right after the first book, it was unlikely I’d ever get to it.

I’m so glad I did though because I actually liked this book a lot more than the first book (rare, I know). I would actually call this a companion novel to the first book rather than a sequel, so you could definitely read this one as a standalone, but there are spoilers for how the first book ends, so don’t read it first if you still want to read both books. But the plots are quite different, so if you’re more interested in this one, you could skip reading Code Name Verity.

Rose Under Fire tells the story of Rose Justice, an 18 year old American pilot who travels to England in WWII to fly plane for the Air Transport Authority, who ferry planes between different locations for the Royal Air Force (they are not combat pilots). It is nearing the end of the war and Germany has just been pushed out of Paris. Rose has the opportunity to drop off a plane in Paris, but she disappears on her return flight to England and no one knows what happened to her.

In reality, she ran into some German pilots and they forced her to fly and land in Germany. When she is unable to provide them with any meaningful information, they ship her off to Ravensbruck, the notorious woman’s prison near the Polish border. For those who are unfamiliar with Ravensbruck, it was not a death camp like Auschwitz (though many died there and gas chambers were constructed near the end of the war), but a work camp. But it is most famous for the Ravensbruck rabbits, a group a 74 Polish women on whom horrific medical experiments were completed.

I knew about Ravensbruck and the experiments, but I’ll admit it’s a topic I’ve been avoiding reading about because it’s just too horrific to think about. I avoided Lilac Girls when it was published in 2016 because despite sounding like something I would like, I was too afraid to read it. I’ve read a lot of books about the holocaust, but this is definitely one topic I’ve been avoiding because it’s just so disturbing. However, I really liked Wein’s depiction of the rabbits in this book. Rose is a witness to the rabbits rather than being one of them. Some of the rabbits died in the experiments, but many of them survived and were still living in Ravensbruck when Rose arrives. At this point in the story (late 1944), the Germans have ceased their experiments and in the face of the approaching allies are mostly trying to hide the evidence of the crimes they committed. I liked the depiction because Wein doesn’t get into the nitty gritty, horrible details of the experiments, but rather focuses on the spirit, tenacity, and courage of the women who survived.

Rose carries the story, but it is never really about her. Wein obviously took some liberties with the plot, but generally it is based in truth (not with Rose, but about the camp and the rabbits). What I found most inspiring was how vivacious these characters were, despite being the subjects of such atrocities. Instead of being defeated, they were mad and they wanted justice. Despite being forced to live in terrible living conditions while still healing from the experiments, they had a great capacity for love and willingly took Rose into their family when she was assigned to their barracks. They still had hopes and dreams for their futures. They wanted to continue learning so that one day, when they escaped Ravensbruck, they would still have a future ahead of them and could seek justice against the Nazis. They always looked out for one another and actively rebelled against the Nazis, trying to smuggle out pictures and stories of what had happened to them, ensuring the names of the women would be remembered despite the Nazi’s best attempts to hide them.

What was also inspiring was the respect the rest of the camp paid to these women. Before the allies arrived, the Nazi’s tried to mass murder the entire group of rabbits, and the other prisoners of Ravensbruck conspired to hide the rabbits from them. They hid them among other barracks, in hospital wings, and among the dead, sneaking them food and water to sustain them throughout this time. Everyone recognized that these women had been wronged and deserved to survive in order to tell their stories.

This story is also striking because of parallels to what is happening today in parts of the world (yes, it kills me to type this about a holocaust story). Wein talks about how unrelenting the Nazi’s were in their desire to wipe undesirable people from the face of the planet by the fact that in the face of the advancing allies, rather than leave the prisoners, they were determined to kill as many of them as possible to hide their crimes. Prisoners from Auschwitz and other death camps were transported to Ravensbruck as the allies approached. Gas chambers were constructed to aid in killing prisoners, but mostly they were just left to starve.

When Ravensbruck reached its capacity, prisoners from other death camps would be housed in tents and left without food or water until they died. Some of the rabbits would hide in these tents to escape their own executions and Wein talks about how the prisoners would lie at the bottom of the tent flaps to drink the rain as it poured down the sides because that was the only source of water they had. People literally died waiting to be processed. One of the big headlines in the papers while I was reading this was about the 7 year old migrant girl who died at the American border after walking hundreds of miles with her family to seek refuge, only to die of thirst at her destination while waiting for officials to do something. We have gone down this road before and we must do better, we must be better.

Code Name Verity

Rating: .5
Author: Elizabeth E. Wein
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub date: Feb. 2012 (read Dec. 2018)

I have mixed feelings about Code Name Verity. I’ve heard so many great things about this book and I really expected to love it, but I was really surprised when I actually started reading it.

This book is SLOW. I don’t mind slow books and I often really like slow burn dramas, but I’m not sure this worked for me and I’m surprised that it worked for so many other people. I’m kind of wondering if there’s something wrong with me or if people are just rating this so high based on emotional response to the ending of the book versus the book as a whole.

Code Name Verity tells the story of two friends during World War 2. Maddie is a pilot and got her license before the war started. At the start of the war she is forced off to the sidelines in favour of male pilots and works as a radio operator, where she meets her best friend. I don’t want to name her friend because she takes several names throughout the course of the novel and I don’t want to give away any spoilers. But the book opens with Maddie’s friend having been caught by the Germans in France as an English spy. She is imprisoned by the Germans and tortured for information. She agrees to pass information to them and starts writing her account of the war and her exposure to the British air forces.

I think it’s best to go into this book blind. All you really need to know is that this is a story about two friends and the lesser known roles that some women played in world war 2. The author initially set out to write a story about female pilots in WW2, because she is a pilot herself, and it developed into this book.

I have to give the author props, the book is clever. We view the story from two points of view, with the second half of the book essentially giving us an entirely new viewpoint on the first half. I really liked the narrator in that she was funny and clever even while being interrogated by the Nazi’s. Her personality really shines through, as does her love for her friend. What I liked most about this book was definitely the friendship and the way Wein played around with perspective. From the start of the book it seems like this is ultimately going to be a story about Maddie. Maddie is the focus of the intel that our narrator provides to the Nazi’s and they are particularly interested in Maddie because she is a pilot. But in the second half of the book it becomes very obvious that the story is not just about Maddie. It is about both friends and how each woman is the hero of the other’s story. They both made considerable contributions to the war effort and neither is more important than the other. It’s ultimately a story about friendship and I did think Wein created a very authentic and beautiful friendship.

So I can definitely understand why people love this book, I’m just surprised it has been as widely and well received as it has been. It is well loved among the YA community and I can’t help but wonder if that might have something to do with it’s success. I’ve never seen this one on the historical fiction circuit. I’ve only ever seen this book on the YA circuit and I really don’t want to be a snob about it, but as someone who’s read a lot of historical fiction, I kind of wonder if maybe this was many reader’s first, or only, foray into the genre. It was a very educational book and I definitely appreciate that it exists, but I just can’t get beyond the fact that for about 70% of this book, I was bored. I was interested in the interrogation and prison aspect because when we talk about WW2, we tend to get the camp perspective and this was definitely different than that. But most of the book was about aviation and after a while, it just got really boring and repetitive.

I am struggling to write this review because objectively, I do believe this is an important novel and it did make me think a lot, but it just never captivated me. And you know what, that’s okay. It’s obviously a beloved book to many people and it offers a perspective of WW2 that I haven’t seen before. The ending is heartbreaking. I knew this was going to be a sad book, so I was well prepared, but the ending definitely caught me off guard. Overall, I enjoyed the second half of the book better than the first. I understand now why the first half of the book was written the way it was, but I still think it was a bit overdone. I did love the ending though. I thought it was just the perfect amount of trauma – it was heartbreaking, but meaningful and not done for the sake of emotionally manipulating your readers.

So overall I think I will give this a 3.5 stars. I doubt I’ll be picking this book again, but overall, it was memorable and I don’t regret having read it. It just read a little bit more like history than historical fiction.

Our Homesick Songs

Rating: ⭐
Author: Emma Hooper
Genres: Historical Fiction, Fiction
Pub date: Aug. 2018 (read Nov. 2018)

I loved everything about this book.

I saw it floating around on Netgalley and Goodreads over the past year and I thought it had the most gorgeous cover, which reminded me of my home in Newfoundland, but I guess I never read the synopsis because when one of the book bloggers I follow posted a review about this book, I couldn’t believe it was actually about Newfoundland. (not that there’s any shortage of books about Newfoundland, I just wasn’t expecting to find one in the mainstream book world).

Our Homesick Songs is by Albertan author, Emma Hooper, and is about the collapse of the Newfoundland fishery in 1992 and the struggle many Newfoundlanders went through in making a living after their traditional livelihood was decimated. The story focuses on the Connor family, who lives in a small town called Big Running, on an island off the coast of Newfoundland. It tells the story of Aidan Connor and Martha Murphy – how they fell in love and were later forced to travel to the Alberta camps to find work – and their two children, Finn and Cora. It’s a family drama at heart, but setting and culture play a huge role in the story.

I grew up in Newfoundland, moving to BC after I finished university. My parents and grandparents are from rural Newfoundland communities and my maternal grandfather was a fisherman. Stories about Newfoundland always hold a special place in my heart because, I think more than anywhere else in Canada, Newfoundland has a very distinct sense of culture and belonging. I was too young to understand the cod moratorium in the early 1990’s, but I’ve witnessed the impact in had on rural Newfoundland, and how the return of the food fishery in 2007 was like a right of passage and a homecoming for many people. Everyone has friends and relatives who were forced to move out west in search of employment – it’s why I have so much family located in Alberta – but there is usually a keen desire to return home.

I was a bit nervous to read this book, seeing as it’s not actually written by a Newfoundlander. I mean, I know people write books all the time about places they’re not from, but you can’t help but feel a little bit nervous about having your beloved home recounted from the point of view of someone else. But Emma Hooper did a wonderful job with this book. Her writing is lyrical and beautiful and it really does evoke a strong sense of homesickness as you read her writing. I think she did a wonderful job capturing the love people feel for Newfoundland, and communicating how heartbreaking it is for people when they are forced to leave. I’m sure I related to it a little bit more as a Newfoundlander, but I really think that anyone can love and enjoy this book.

There’s two main stories being told throughout this book. There’s a current day story set in 1992. The fish have disappeared, and as such, so have the people. Big Running gets smaller every day as families take off for the mainland in search of work. There’s an abundance of jobs in the work camps up in Northern Alberta, so this is primarily where people flock. In an attempt to stay, Martha and Aidan share a camp job on rotation, with each of them doing a month on and a month off. Their children, Finn and Cora, struggle with the loss of one of their parents each month and the disappearance of their community. Cora escapes from her broken family by studying travel guides from the library and re-creating each country in one of the abandoned homes. Finn laments the loss of their way of life and comes up with a plan to try and draw the fish back to their shores. Both children are lonely, as are their parents, who are forced to live apart indefinitely.

The second story is recounted by Finn’s accordion teacher, Mrs Callaghan. She tells Finn the story of his parents and how they met and came to fall in love back in the 1970’s. The stories contrast each other in that one tells the story of how love began, whereas the other tells the story of how it starts to fall apart. And woven through both stories is the music that calls us all together and the importance it plays in Newfoundland culture.

I actually really loved the way Hooper wove music in through the story. Music is an incredibly important part of Newfoundland culture and I thought she really showcased that and linked it in really well with her themes of homesickness and loneliness. Finn plays the accordion, Cora plays the violin, and everybody sings or plays one musical instrument or another. Aidan and Martha sang to each other over the water for years without even being aware of the other. Music plays an important role in bringing people together and reminding them where they come from and I thought Hooper showcased this multiple times throughout the book. I loved when everyone showed up to Finn’s community meeting with their instruments. They knew they might be forced out of their homes, but saw the meeting as a good opportunity for one last community kitchen party.

This book also touches on the issue of government resettlement. It’s a heavy issue in itself and has been the focus of more than one book in the past, but I thought it worked well in this story and wasn’t overdone. It’s another important historical part of Newfoundland that is ongoing to this day, and I think it’s great to inform more people about it. Rural communities are very much disappearing in Newfoundland and it is heartbreaking. It’s difficult for the government to continue maintaining services to small backwater communities and it does happen where residents are encouraged by the government to relocate. For Finn, the deadline to decide on re-settlement was a catalyst to do something. He doesn’t want to leave his home or have his family be separated any longer, so he hatches a plan to try and bring back the fish.

This is a classic kind of slow-burn family drama, but no part of this story read slowly to me. Hooper does a great job on characterization and character development and even though it’s not a plot driven book, I could not put it down. I picked this one up with the intent of reading it simultaneously with a mystery novel, but once I started this one, I literally couldn’t bear to put it down and didn’t touch my other book once until finishing this one. I can see how this kind of writing isn’t for everyone, but I personally loved it.

In conclusion, I can already tell that this is a story that will stick with me and that I’ll be recommending to my family. Everything about this book worked for me and I loved how evocative and introspective the story was. The name Our Homesick Songs is the perfect name for this book because the writing, the setting, and the characters all evoke a very keen sense of longing. 5 stars, no question.