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.

The Alice Network

 

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐ 
Author: Kate Quinn
Genres: Historical Fiction
Read: Oct. 2017 on audiobook

 

I listened to The Alice Network on audiobook, so I’ve slowly been making my way through this one for ages. It’s a historical tale set in France in both 1916 and 1947 and tells two stories simultaneously. In 1916, Evelyn Gardner was a British spy who operated in the french town of Lille, posing as a waitress and collecting information the German officers would spill over their meal. In 1947, Charlie St. Clair is searching for her cousin Rose who disappeared during the war. It turns out that Rose and Eve had a shared connection in that they both spied and worked under the same man in 2 different wars and Charlie pairs up with Eve to try and find her cousin.

I really liked Eve’s story. She was a part of the Alice Network, which was a real network of female spies in WWI, lead by Louise de Bettignies, alias Alice Dubois, or as she’s known to Eve, Lily. Louise was a real person and I found Eve’s story of spying on the German officers and how she would pass information fascinating. I don’t know how much of Lily’s character was fabricated, but hopefully not very much because she was an inspiring woman with her eternal optimism, humour, and spirit.

I didn’t love Charlie’s story. She was pretty annoying at the beginning of the novel (although I did feel for her and her predicament) and I found her story much slower moving. It only got interesting during the end and while I understand why Quinn decided to run their stories parallel, I felt that Charlie added very little to the story for most of the novel. I was disappointed at the end of each of Eve’s chapters when I knew I had to read a whole chapter about Charlie and I felt that little happened in her chapters to advance the plot. They went from town to town aimlessly and her story didn’t become engaging until the point when Eve started telling Charlie her story and they starting syncing up as Eve revealed more and more information to Charlie about her experience during WWI.

Definitely an interesting read though. I’ve read a lot of WWII books set in France so sometimes I get a bit fatigued with the “next big WWII book”, but I’ve read substantially less on WWI, which was another reason why I liked Eve’s story. That said, this was a well written book and I did enjoy it!

The Radium Girls

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Kate Moore
Genres: History, Non-Fiction
Read: Nov. 2017

Why do we always forget women’s history? Why do we never even record it?

The Radium Girls inspire me. Thank you Kate Moore for writing this book and reminding us of the struggle these women went through and the impact their fight has had on all those workers to come after them. This book was so well researched and so well written. Sometimes I have trouble with non-fiction, but this read like fiction and Moore infused a lot of emotion into her telling of history.

The Radium Girls tells the story of the thousands of girls who worked as dial painters in radium factories in small american towns beginning in 1917 and continuing into the 1970’s. Radium was still a relatively new discovery at this time and a luminous paint was developed using radium for painting the dials on watch faces and aviation and military equipment throughout the Great War.

The US Radium Corporation set up a factory in Orange, New Jersey and their competitor, Radium Dial, later set up another factory in Ottawa, Illinois. Hundreds of girls in both towns were hired as dial painters at the factories. While the dangers of radium were definitely known at this time, it was more often touted as a ‘wonder’ drug with many health benefits. The girls at the factory were taught to paint the dials using the ‘lip – dip – paint’ method. In order to get the brushes super fine for precision painting, they were taught to use their lips to wet the brush to a fine point. This resulted in them ingesting the radium-laced paint with each ‘lip and dip’ and due to poor cleaning procedures at the plant, they often took radium powder home on their shoes and clothes. They became known as ‘glowing girls’.

As you can imagine, ingesting radium daily on the job is not the best practice and the girls eventually started developing health problems, including fatigue, achy backs, limps and loose teeth. Some girls experienced a very rapid decline in health, while others experienced slower symptoms. However, all of the symptoms resulted in the deterioration of the women’s bodies, often resulting in death. Unfortunately, it can take years for symptoms of radium poisoning to develop and with many women having moved on from their dial painting jobs several years prior, and with little known about radium poisoning at the time, doctors had a really hard time diagnosing their issues.

Moore is unflinching in her storytelling of the events that took place in Orange and Ottawa in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Parts of the book are very difficult to read due to the immense suffering the radium girls went through. Both radium companies tried to deny any wrongdoing and it is shameful and literally evil the lengths they went to distance themselves from the girls and any wrongdoing. The US Radium Corporation were a bunch of snakes, but Radium Dial was downright criminal. Both companies repeatedly lied to the girls and to the courts and it was actually enraging to read about the ordeal they put the radium girls through.

Once a connection was finally made between the girls symptoms and radium poisoning, many of the girls brought legal action against the companies. They went through hell from both the radium poisoning and from the lengths they went to try and secure some kind of justice and compensation for their families.

These girls inspire me because despite suffering some of the worst pain I’ve heard described, they persevered and fought relentlessly for justice – mostly for the radium girls that would come behind them as they were unlikely to live long enough to enjoy any justice they might find for themselves. They literally birthed the laws that now exist surrounding workers rights and likely saved thousands of lives through the development of safety procedures and protocols when working with radium as a result of their case.

I was totally blown away by this book. It is some heavy subject matter, but I was completely enthralled by their story and inhaled this 500 pager in just 2 days. Even though this book takes place in the 20’s and 30’s, it is still hugely relevant today. Women are still routinely ignored and silenced. What frustrated me about this book was that nobody gave a shit about the women and that they were literally losing their lives on the job. In fact, people only even started talking about radium use in the plant when the first male employee died in New Jersey, even though several women had already died at this point.

Because the radium girls in Ottawa began pursuing litigation in the 30’s, when the Great Depression was at its worst, the community shunned them. They saw Radium Dial as a quality employer in a time when jobs were hard to come by and the community tried to silence the women when they came out saying they’d been poisoned and said they made it all up because they didn’t want to lose the plant. When the girls approached their boss after Charlotte Purcell lost her arm to radium poisoning, he literally looked at them and told them he saw nothing wrong with them. Women were second class citizens and the girls were routinely silenced and ignored.

Nevertheless, they persevered. I love that these types of stories about women are finally becoming mainstream. These stories deserve and need to be told. Women’s history is so important and so often forgotten or unrecorded. The post script of this book destroyed me because it proves how easily history is forgotten and repeated. That’s why I highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone!