Lisa See has written a wonderful novel, The Island of Sea Women, about the women who worked as haenyeo divers on South Korea’s Jeju Island during the 1930s and 1940s. The focus, in addition to the matriarchal-world of harvesting food from the seafloor, is on the long-term relationships between the women and their families during a very dangerous period on Korean history.
In 1950, there were brutal purges in South Korea by the U.S.-stalled government of Syngman Rhee against real and imagined communists in the south, including Jeju Island. Multiple villages were burnt, thousands of innocent people were brutally tortured and killed, all based on the lame excuse that a communist walking through the countryside proved everyone there was a potential sympathizer.
I found myself growing more and more angry about the complicity of the U.S. in these massacres as I got farther into the novel. See mentions in the afterword that Jeju citizens were forbidden from speaking about what happened for 50 years under pain of death.
The Americans, who occupied South Korea at the end of World War two classified anything having to do with the purges, the pictures of which look like something out of Nazi Germany. Our military could have and should have brought order to the land it governed. Instead, as General MacArthur claimed, the U.S. viewed the executions as an “internal matter” while local commanders surreptitiously cheered the brutal putdown of the left-wing uprisings, and even took pictures of the mass graves of innocents killed in the process.
To learn more, I suggest http://islandstudies.net/weis/weis_2016v06/v06n4-2.pdf, an author mentioned by See in the novel’s afterword.
As a grade school student, I saw news reports about the Korean War. What I did not see–since it would be classified for years–was any news about the South Korean president we installed killing his own people. Once again, we were cut off from the truth about what our country was doing, or in this case, not doing.
Lisa See has not only written another powerful novel that teaches us much about a culture far away but one that sheds light on another failure of our civilian and military leadership.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of magical realism and contemporary fantasy novels including “Conjure Woman’s Cat.” We are especially happy with the highly praised narration of the audiobook.