“Year of Impossible Goodbyes” by Sook Nyul Choi
I guess August was the ‘month of impossibly short reads’ for me because here’s another little book that I thought was deeply moving. It’s shelved with children’s fiction in the library, but I hope that won’t keep you away from it. It’s a beautifully told, heartbreaking story with at least some happiness at the end. I know your teachers are often asking you to think about what life is like in other parts of the world—and this is a great account.
The narrator is ten-year-old Sookan. She relates the experiences of her Korean family near the end of World War II. She—and all of Korea—is under Japanese occupation—and this has been going on a lot longer than WWII—more like thirty years. The Japanese occupiers are cruel just for the sake of cruelty and use the war effort as an excuse for all of their behaviors.
Sookan’s family runs a ‘sock factory’ which employs young women and older teen girls. They must work long, grueling hours for low wages (sometimes they are not paid at all) to make socks for the Japanese war effort. Sookan’s mother and gruff aunt care deeply for the girls and try to keep them fed and protected. When Sookan’s grandfather extends some kindness to one of the girls, the Japanese military come to the house and cut down his beloved pine tree. After this, grandfather is tired of life, and Sookan learns of the physical torture he had endured by the Japanese. The sock-factory girls are later taken away to be ‘spirit girls’ for the Japanese troops. They cry out “I’d rather be dead!” and I wondered if younger readers would understand that this meant the girls were being taken into forced/enslaved prostitution.
Just as we hope things will get better with the end of WWII, North Korea is occupied by the USSR (Russia), and Sookan’s family must escape to get beyond the 38th parallel. Their efforts—guided by a double agent—are both exciting and heartbreaking. A wonderful read!