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The Island of Sea Women

August 5, 2019
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Sometimes I listen to an audiobook just because I come across it in the library, and Lisa See’s new novel The Island of Sea Women is one. Set on the island of Jeju through Japanese colonialism, WWII, and the Korean War, up to the present day, it’s a story about how modern-day South Korea was formed and how a group of female divers, called haenyeo, saw the changes.

The haenyeo culture is one in which women work in both “dry” and “wet” fields—the wet ones meaning the ocean. The men stay home and take care of the children. The two main characters of the novel meet when they are seven years old–Mi-ja, who is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator and becomes the wife of a policeman, and Young-sook, who is the daughter of the leader of the local haenyeo collective and becomes the wife of a school teacher.

Young-sook’s mother informally adopts Mi-ja because her parents are dead and she lives with an aunt and uncle who treat her like a slave. The women do subsistence farming on Jeju, raising millet, rapeseed, red beans, and sweet potatoes. From the sea they gather sea urchins, sea cucumbers, crabs, conch, sea squirts, sea slugs, agar-agar, kelp, octopus, and abalone. As Young-sook remembers their childhood:
“At the end of spring, every family across the island stripped the thatch off their roofs. Mi-ja’s aunt and uncle made her haul away the old thatch, bring in new thatch, and do the best she could to pass stones up to the men to weigh down the thatch and keep it in place. When she was done, she came to my house, where Mother allowed her to help me sort through our old thatch to search for insect larva, which Mother boiled for us to eat.”

Their training as divers begins as soon as they are old enough to play in tide pools and is organized by Young-sook’s mother:
“When I’d turned ten, Mother had given me an old pair of her goggles, which I’d shared with Mi-ja. When I’d turned twelves, Mother had taught us how to reap underwater plants without damaging their rots so that they would grow back in the next season, just as we did in our dry fields. Now my ability to read the seabed for things I could harvest increased daily. I could easily recognize the difference between brown algae, sea mustard, and seaweed, while my skills at sensing prey—the poisonous bite of a sea snake or the numbing sting of a jellyfish—improved too.

The first of Young-sook’s losses happens when she is fifteen, when her mother is caught underwater while harvesting abalone and drowns. In some ways, the novel is the story of her losses, which provide context for historical events. Her brothers are taken by the Japanese to fight in one of the wars that involve the unwilling islanders. In the major loss of the novel, Young-sook watches as one of her children, her sister-in-law, and husband are killed and blames her friend Mi-Ja, who refuses to take Young-sook’s children and claim them as the protected offspring of her policeman husband. We later find out more about what this would have meant for the children, but it’s easy to understand why Young-sook sees Mi-ja’s refusal as the end of their friendship.

For Americans, learning about how the brutal Japanese colonizers on Jeju were replaced by the American army and local police is eye-opening. In one brief peaceful period of Young-sook’s life, she says that she “worked as a haenyeo, and [her husband] taught his classes unfettered by Japanese occupiers. He spoke to his students entirely in our native tongue, and they used their Korean names and spoke in the Jeju dialect without fear of punishment. We could do these things, because we were free from the colonists at last, although we still didn’t now what life with the American occupiers would be like.”

The killings of Young-sook’s husband, son, and sister-in-law are clearly part of the events of the historical Jeju uprising at the start of the Korean war. So the events of Young-sook’s life are a personal chronicle of those years. In 1954, when the seven-year “incident” was over:
“Reminders of what had happened were everywhere. The man who walked on crutches because his knee had been shattered by a pickax. The girl, with burns on most of her body, who grew to marriageable age but received no proposals. The young man who’d survived months of torture roamed the olles, his hair uncut, his face unshaven, his clothes uncleaned, and his eyes unfocused. We all suffered from memories. Nor could any of us foget the throat-choking smell of blood or the crows that had swarmed in great clouds over the dead. These things haunted us in our dreams and during every waking moment. But if someone was foolish enough to speak a single word of sadness or was caught shedding a tear over the death of a loved one, then he or she would be arrested.”

The novel is not all about sadness. Young-sook becomes a haenyeo chief, responsible for protecting human lives and passing on the knowledge required for harvesting plants and animals from the sea. Joon-lee, a daughter born to Young-sook after her father’s murder, goes to university in Seoul, where she falls in love with the son of Mi-ja. It was once a happy daydream for Young-sook and Mi-ja that her first (and only) son and Young-sook’s first daughter might fall in love, so it’s a nicely ironic ending for the novel when the union of the son with Young-sook’s youngest daughter finally provides an opportunity for Young-sook to widen her perspective and forgive her childhood friend.

I particularly enjoyed the part of the novel in which Young-sook talks about how her youngest daughter was given a copy of Heidi  at school, and the effect the book had on all of them.

I don’t think I would have liked this novel as much if I’d read it, rather than listening to it. My reactions to Lisa See’s novels are unusually varied—I liked Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and then I enjoyed Shanghai Girls, but I hated Peony in Love. The way I got a little bit of Young-sook’s story every time I went out in my car, where I kept the audiobook, made it a better story, more complicated and mysterious than it would have been had I looked at it all together and followed the different threads more closely. I should add here that I am an absolutely terrible auditory learner, drifting in and out, and that I paged through a copy of the print book in order to write about The Island of Sea Women.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 7, 2019 1:56 pm

    I’ve never read See before – this one sounds like it has very compelling moments but I wonder if I could handle the tragic events. I often avoid historical fiction because I suspect it will be sad! Maybe I shouldn’t be such a wimp.

    • August 7, 2019 2:01 pm

      It’s possible that this is not the one to start with, if you’re leery of fiction based (loosely, in this case) on historical events. Many of these events are desperate and quite tragic. The main characters are strong and they persevere, so the ending is hopeful.

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  1. The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See – Sometimes Leelynn Reads

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