Sunday, February 17, 2008

Book Review: Lost Names: Scenes from a Korean Boyhood

Author: Richard E. Kim

Pages: 198

Genre: Fiction/Historical

Personal Rating: 4/5

From the back cover:

In this classic tale, Richard Kim paints seven vivid scenes from a boyhood and early adolescence in Korea at the height of the Japanese occupation, 1932 to 1945. Taking its title from the grim fact that the occupiers forced the Koreans to renounce their own names and adopt Japanese names instead, the book follows one Korean family through the Japanese occupation to the surrender of the Japanese empire. Lost Names is at once a loving memory of family and a vivid portrayal of life in a time of anguish.

My husband walked into the bedroom and said “I think you’ll like this book.” I asked him if he had read it and he said yes. He doesn’t read fiction so I decided to read it immediately. We are both high school teachers. He teaches social studies, I teach biology. We have both been to China, he has been to Korea and Thailand. As part of his grant to go to Korea he needed to read this book. He enjoyed it. This says a lot since he tends not to like fiction. His idea of a good time is watching 20/20 or Meet the Press.

After my trip to China I became interested in trying to experience other cultures. If you cannot visit the country sometimes the best way to do it is through a book. This story is not continuous. It follows a boy through seven timeframes of his life while Japan is occupying Korea. It describes how the children were no longer allowed to speak Korean (their own language). They needed to learn Japanese starting in third grade and then as the war progressed starting in first grade. It becomes painfully clear that the people have no way of knowing what is truly going on during the war. Only what the Japanese tell them. They learn about Germany surrendering 4 month earlier, they thought they were still fighting with the Japanese. All able bodied children are forced to build an airstrip that the Japanese know will never be used all to the keep the Korean people oppressed and under their control.

One of the most touching or painful parts of the story is when all the Korean people are forced to give up their own names and take Japanese names. When they are done registering they go to the cemeteries of their ancestors to mourn and ask forgiveness for their shameful behavior of losing their names.

I normally would not have picked up this book but I’m glad my husband suggested it. I normally tend to be attracted to stories from a female perspective so it was a nice change to experience it from a male perspective.

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