White Chrysanthemum is the story of two sisters, Hana and Emi, separated by war. Born on the Korean island of Jeju, they are haenyeo, the famously independent women of the sea. In 1943, when Emi was still a child sitting on shore to watch the catch while Hana and their mother dived, Hana noticed some Japanese occupation soldiers walking toward Emi. She swam to shore and showed herself so they would not see Emi, sacrificing herself to save her sister. She was taken away and shipped north to Manchuria as a comfort woman. The Japanese military thought they would be stronger in battle if they slept with a woman before battle, so the military stole women away to service the men.
We see Emi again as she prepares to visit her son and daughter in Seoul. They have left Jeju and her daughter refused to continue the generations of haenyeo to pursue an academic career. She lives a life of self-denial in many ways, continuing to dive, living in a shack. She has shut herself off from pain by refusing to remember, but of course, her memories are always there.
White Chrysanthemumis told as two narratives, Hana’s story in the past and Emi’s story in the present, though we learn what happened to her and her family since that day on the beach. While she is visiting her children, she insists on going to the march to remember the comfort women, including her sister.
The story was inspired by the comfort women monuments that were so thoughtfully designed to remember and to heal. It is heartbreaking. Both Hana and Emi suffered incredible hardships because of war, but more particularly because how governments use women as a way to wage war. Rape and stealing woman is a way of changing the population of a country, a level of war that can amount to ethnic cleansing. This story also highlights how much Jeju, in particular, suffered, not just in the Japanese occupation, but in the Korean War as well, as those fleeing the north moved into the south and oppressed those perceived as too independent or possibly sympathetic to the Communists.
I feel guilty that I did not like White Chrysanthemum more. I liked Emi’s story a lot and admired Hana’s grit and determination. For me, there’s this balance with stories of rape and abuse that is hard to define and achieve. How much abuse and rape is enough to make sure we understand the pain and horror that Hana endured and how much is sick-making. This went to sick-making for me in its detail and relentlessness. Sure, I am only reading about it, it’s not happening to me, but it was still too much for me.
Other people will find the important story, the history and the humanity too important to cavil at too much detail. It is an important story and sheds light on a little mentioned time in history and not just on the comfort women but on the people of Jeju and what happened to them. It is full of drama and well-written. Most people will probably love it.
I received a copy of White Chrysanthemum from the publisher through NetGalley