In the Absence of Sun: A Korean American Woman's Promise to Reunite Three Lost Generations of Her Family

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"Helie Lee often had heard her grandmother speak of an uncle, lost decades ago when he was a child during the family's daring escape from North Korea. As an adult, he was still living there under horrid conditions. When her grandmother began to ail, Helie became determined to reunite her with her eldest son, despite tremendous odds. Helie's mission became even more urgent when she realized that her first book, the bestselling novel Still Life with Rice, about the family's escape, might have angered the North Korean government and put her uncle in ...
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In the Absence of Sun: A Korean American Woman's Promise to Reunite Three Lost Generations of Her Family

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Overview

"Helie Lee often had heard her grandmother speak of an uncle, lost decades ago when he was a child during the family's daring escape from North Korea. As an adult, he was still living there under horrid conditions. When her grandmother began to ail, Helie became determined to reunite her with her eldest son, despite tremendous odds. Helie's mission became even more urgent when she realized that her first book, the bestselling novel Still Life with Rice, about the family's escape, might have angered the North Korean government and put her uncle in danger." Pushing through rivers and forests, fighting the cold, bribing and manipulating border guards, gangsters, and secret service agents, Helie and her father finally achieve their goal. But there are many hurdles. Her uncle is forced to make a horrowing choice: leave his North Korean family behind or continue to live in oppression and starvation away from his beloved mother. And Helie has to face her deep, sometimes ambivalent, emotions about her identity in the family and as a Korean American woman. Unmarried and outspoken, she struggles in Korea, where women marry early and keep silent, and writes eloquently about the landscape there, both literal and cultural. She comes through a heartbreaking love affair only to face an intense and confusing relationship with the Guide - the man who, despite being crude and macho, ultimately helps to save her uncle and eventually his extended family through several daring acts of heroism.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Lee's bestselling debut, Still Life with Rice (1996), created quite a stir. It chronicled Lee's grandmother's 1950 escape from northern to southern Korea during a civil war that separated the Koreas and tore Lee's grandmother's family apart, as her eldest son, Lee Yong Woon, did not make it out of the north. Lee (who was born in Seoul, South Korea, and now lives in Los Angeles) used her uncle's real name in Still Life and included his picture. Once that book became available in South Korea, Lee's family was notified that her book had placed her relatives in North Korea in danger. Nonetheless, Lee promised her grandmother that she would see her son again, thus undertaking a daring mission chronicled here to reunite the family. The account is a gripping and inspiring one, and Lee's prose resonates with a poetic sensibility. She also brings a distinctly American perspective to the entire situation. At times, the author's desire to make the story her own (including a long segue into her relationship with her boyfriend) steal some of the swiftness and urgency from a story that ultimately belongs to her entire family. But an all-out thrilling escape story, complete with dangerous border crossings, unexpected romance and touching family moments, makes for a terrific and beautiful chronicle. Lee reflects, "I believe one family, one person, one action can make a difference, because we are all connected. When we realize this connection, peace is possible." B&w photos not seen by PW. Agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh. (Apr.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Young, hip, and successful, Lee lives in Los Angeles, has written a best-selling book (Still Life with Rice), and has a rich boyfriend in Hong Kong. But she still had something she wanted to accomplish: to reunite Grandmother Halmoni with the last of her sons, the one still in North Korea. Time was of the essence since Halmoni was in her mid-eighties and weakening. The project demanded detailed planning, four long trips, dangerous bribery, and many hardships, along with endless delays, unexpected events, and unremitting anxiety. To relate her experience, Lee uses an overwrought style that makes us wonder whether she is exaggerating (are economy-class seats on airplanes that horrible?), but her story and background information on conditions and places in China and Korea are compelling and truthful. We learn a lot about Lee herself, especially her love life, and about being Korean American. Recommended. Kitty Chen Dean, Nassau Community Coll., Garden City, NY Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A spirited true-life tale of barbed wire, machine guns, and love-struck conspirators. Lee, who chronicled her grandmother's escape from Korea in Still Life with Rice (1996), in this follow-up returns to her ancestral country herself on a pointed mission: to fulfill a promise made to the grandmother that after 47 years of separation, she would live to see her eldest son, an unwilling subject of "North Korea's obscene dictatorship." Said son, now elderly himself, had a few useful contacts to aid in the escape plan they eventually concocted; so did Lee, who cultivated an odd relationship with a Chinese-Korean smuggler who apparently knew all the exits and just who to bribe. In the end, Lee's plan works despite some bumbling, some false turns, and some annoying intrusions on the part of the South Korean CIA and the American FBI; indeed, she gets more than she bargained for when not one but nine relatives make it across the dangerous North Korean frontier. Lee's narrative is somewhat too relaxed for the sort of political thriller the publisher promises, but it makes for a readable and one-of-a-kind tale all the same. Of particular interest to students of Asian literature are the author's reminiscences about her own comparatively privileged girlhood in southern California, where, she writes, "I bleached and permed and tortured my black hair, tanned my yellow skin, and Scotch-taped my eyes to crease the lids. I even taught myself to sing ‘Hava Nagila,' to ska dance to the Police, and to like cottage cheese." Readers interested in a glimpse behind North Korea's iron wall will also find much in her pages to assure them that this worker's paradise is not a particularly nice place to live. Le Carreor Ambler she's not, but Lee's memoir delivers action and a satisfying resolution.
From the Publisher
In the Absence of Sun is an amazing real-life family story that reads like a thriller. Helie Lee has shown incredible personal bravery in both taking responsibility for the cost her previous book took on her family left behind in North Korea and then in what she did to help get them out. She says she was never afraid. I was afraid for her.” -- Lisa See, author of On Gold Mountain

From the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780609609347
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/23/2002
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.17 (d)

Meet the Author

Born in Seoul, South Korea, Helie Lee grew up in Los Angeles, where she now lives near her family. She lectures nationwide.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

April 18,1997

We were on our way! Three generations of us—my father, Halmoni, and I—were going to China to redeem the past. Soon we’d be in Yanji, a city in China’s Jilian Province. Siberia was to the north, Chinese Inner Mongolia to the west, and North Korea just to the south. Westerners rarely ventured to this remote northeastern region. It was way off the beaten track. We had to change planes twice, and at last we embarked on our third and final leg of the journey.

It was unbelievable. After forty-seven years of separation, Halmoni was on her way to reunite with her son, Yong Woon. Ever since we had discovered that he was still alive in North Korea, I had not thought that a reunion would be possible. No one did. North Korea had been one of the most impenetrable and hostile nations in the world since the collapse of the Soviet Union and since the reforms in Cuba and China. Hardly anyone went in, and rarely did they go out. We prayed for a miracle.

A month before our journey began, a Korean Chinese man named Choi Soon Man phoned my parents from China, collect. He had lifted the phone number off one of our letterheads, which Yong Woon Uncle had shown him. He offered to smuggle Yong Woon Uncle across the North Korea–China border and bring him to his home in Yanji to visit with Halmoni, then sneak him back before the authorities discovered he was missing. Apparently, this man had befriended Yong Woon Uncle several years previously during one of his business trips to North Korea. He knew intimate facts about Halmoni that only Yong Woon Uncle could have revealed to him.

My family was stunned, and for days we pondered hisoutrageous offer. Then we unanimously decided it was now or never. Halmoni couldn’t wait any longer. Time was running out. Halmoni was a month shy of turning eighty-five (in Korean years she would be eighty-six, because a child was considered to be one at birth). Twice she had been hospitalized. Twice we had almost lost her. It was sheer force of will and her overwhelming desire to embrace her son one final time that made her rise from the hospital bed. And it was this same willpower and desire that was sustaining her during the long and exhausting journey from Los Angeles to Seoul to Beijing and finally to Yanji.

Copyright 2002 by Helie Lee
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