Secondhand World

Secondhand World

4.5 4
by Katherine Min

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Isadora Myung Hee Sohn—Isa—has just spent ninety-five days in a pediatric burn unit in Albany, New York, recovering from the fire that burned her house and killed her parents. Moving back in time, Secondhand World casts a devastating spell, revealing the circumstances that led to the fire.

Growing up the daughter of Korean-born parents, IsaSee more details below


Isadora Myung Hee Sohn—Isa—has just spent ninety-five days in a pediatric burn unit in Albany, New York, recovering from the fire that burned her house and killed her parents. Moving back in time, Secondhand World casts a devastating spell, revealing the circumstances that led to the fire.

Growing up the daughter of Korean-born parents, Isa is bullied by American classmates and barely noticed at home. Seeking the company of another outsider, Isa falls in love with Hero, an albino boy. But what starts out as a small teenage rebellion sets in motion a series of events and revelations Isa never could have foreseen.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Isolation pervades Min's haunting debut, a depiction of a tragedy-beset Korean-American family living in upstate New York during the aftermath of the Korean War. As the book opens, Isadora (Isa) Myung Hee Sohn, 18, has just spent 95 days on a pediatric burn unit in Albany, N.Y., following a fire that destroyed her house and killed her parents. The backstory, a swirling, textured and beautifully detailed web of perception that records a divided life, comprises the rest of the novel. Isa's mother is a beauty from a wealthy family in Seoul; her father is a former South Korean soldier, now a rigid science professor. Brother Stephen died in an accident as a toddler; her parents' extreme grief and subsequent neglect leave Isa herself feeling "insubstantial, a transparency that hung like a scrim between them and the child they had lost." The teenage Isa, angst-ridden, disaffected and subject to racial prejudice at school escapes into the arms of an albino outsider named "Hero" in a sequence that doesn't fit. But when Isa finds out that her mother is having an affair, her ensuing actions destroy her parents' carefully constructed semblance of happily married life. The plot lurches and meanders, but Min's rendering of an outsider family's tight-knit alienation is spot-on. (Oct.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
KLIATT - Nola Theiss
The story starts with the narrator, Isadora Myung Hee Sohn, known as Isa, telling the reader that she has just spent 95 days in a burn unit and that her parents are dead in a fire. She then tells us of her life as the only surviving child of a Korean couple who lost their young son in a freak accident. Although she tries to fulfill their expectations, she rebels while in high school when she meets an albino classmate, Herold, whom she calls Hero. She, Hero and her best friend run away from home, which leads to some major discoveries about herself and a major upset in her family life. When it turns out that not only she, but also her mother, are rebelling against their traditional Korean life, disaster strikes. Isa shows her innate strength in the story in spite of horrific events; some are of her own making, but most befall her due to circumstance and the clash between her traditional background and her life as an American teenager. The story is well written, and while there are scenes of teenage sex that might upset some parents, it is an honest portrayal of teenage angst, cultural clashes and an ability to survive despite personal loss. Reviewer: Nola Theiss
Library Journal
Min's first novel opens by introducing readers to 18-year-old Isadora Myung Hee Sohn, known as Isa to her mother and friends and Myung Hee to her father. Isa tells the absorbing story of a young woman's struggle to overcome the obstacles of growing up Korean American in Albany, NY, during the 1970s. True to that stereotypically liberated period, Isa gets involved with sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll. Hooking up with albino boyfriend Hero and best friend Rachel, she even manages to run away from home for a brief time. The threesome's experimentation eventually transforms each of them and ultimately wrecks their friendship. What seems like a typical teen angst story actually goes far deeper, as Min's strong writing skills expose the secrets-the tragic death of her younger brother and its impact on her parents, for instance-that come to shape Isa's character. Touching and bittersweet, this novel is filled with universal themes presented through Isa's eyes and should resonate with teen readers of both today and yesterday. Recommended for most public libraries.-Shirley N. Quan, Orange Cty. P.L., Santa Ana, CA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Isadora Myung Hee Sohn, known as Isa, is caught between two cultures. Her Korean-born parents, who have achieved a measure of success in the United States, disagree on what to call her when she is born. Her mother, an aspiring dancer, wishes to name her after Isadora Duncan. Her father insists that she retain the vestiges of her heritage. She embraces American life, but resists her mother's urgings to get an eyelid operation popular with Asian women. When her younger brother is killed in a freak accident, she struggles with the sense that her traditional parents value their dead son more than their living daughter. Isa falls in love with Hero, an albino boy at her high school, and realizes that she is attracted to him because he, too, is different. He introduces her to sex and convinces her to travel with him to California. But, when Isa suspects her mother of being involved with another man, she finds herself bound by the norms of her culture. In her fury, she determines to reveal the affair, with disastrous results. Only later does Isa understand how everyone is bound by those who precede them. Min poignantly captures the dilemma of second-generation Americans as they try to find a place in their universe, but she also tells of a quest for self-discovery, which is universal.-Pat Bangs, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In Min's troubling yet lovely debut, a Korean-American burn victim circa 1976 tries to make sense of the house fire that killed her parents. While recovering from burns over 30% of her body, 18-year-old Isadora Myung Hee Sohn-Isa for short-looks back on her life and the life of her parents to understand why one of them set the fatal fire the night before Isa was to graduate from high school. Isa's father, a scientist and professor in Albany, had always seemed cold and remote. Her docile mother, a beautiful former ballerina lightly scarred from a fire in her own childhood, had returned to college to study poetry. Isa, an only child since her younger brother died in a tragic accident, rejected much of her parents' Korean culture and rebelled against her father's authoritarian rules. Ambivalent about standing out, she wanted to be fully American. She spent more and more time at her friend Rachel's house, drawn as much by Rachel's messy but relaxed parents as by Rachel. Isa became romantically involved with another outsider at school, Hero, a blind Albino who imagined himself the next Johnny Winter. After his parents threatened to send him to a special school for the visually impaired, Hero convinced Isa and Rachel to run away with him to California. The three shared a moment of sexual experimentation that titillated yet frightened them before they were apprehended and brought home, their relationships shattered. Still distraught at losing Hero, Isa caught her mother kissing her poetry professor. She told her father, who was, of course, crushed. After the fire, Isa assumes her father's responsibility until she reads his journal, which makes clear that he was incapable of such violence. Isarecognizes that her mother set the fire, but realizes that placing guilt matters less than appreciating her own survival. Isa's parents remain cloudy but powerful mysteries. Min evokes period and place as well as characters with stringent attention and honesty.
From the Publisher
"Told in achingly evocative prose that lingers in your consciousness. . . . Raw, emotionally urgent and peppered with acute detail." —Los Angeles Times“Engaging both history and the needs of the passionate self, Secondhand World reveals an exquisite and powerful imagination.” —The Providence Journal“Leaves the reader breathless with questions about one’s own capacity to forgive.” —Ms.“Katherine Min gives such celebrated writers as Louise Erdrich, Zadie Smith and Amy Tan a run for their money. Exquisitely written, wrenchingly imagined, Secondhand World will stand your hair on end.” —The Buffalo News

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

My name is Isadora Myung Hee Sohn and I am eighteen years old. I was recently ninety-five days on a pediatric burn unit at Tri-State Medical Center, in Albany, New York, being treated for second- and third-degree burns on my legs, complicated by a recurring bacterial infection. The same fire that injured me killed my parents, Hae Kyoung Chung and Tae Mun Sohn, on June 11, 1976, at approximately 3:20 a.m.

It's very isolating to recover from a severe burn injury. The pain requires a great deal of attention and inward focus. While your skin tissue rages and dies, you try and put yourself as far away as possible mentally, to take refuge in small, retrievable thoughts. Nursery rhymes are sometimes useful, as are television theme songs and knock-knock jokes.

Here's a riddle. A jumbo jet takes off from New York en route to Vancouver with 246 people on board. There's a massive snowstorm, visibility worsens, passengers pray and panic. The pilot loses control, and the plane ends up doing a nosedive on the border of the United States and Canada. The weather is so bad it takes the rescue helicopters two days to get to the remote crash site in the mountains. When they finally manage to land, amid the snow and the wreckage, they're confronted with a terrible dilemma. Since the plane crashed exactly on the boundary line separating the two countries, the recovering authorities don't know whether to bury the survivors in Canada or the United States.

It took me a while to get it. The trick is knowing where to focus. There's so much clamor and confusion—the plane, the storm, the panic—that you're easily thrown off. You end up overlooking what you should have noticed right away.

The fact is that survivors aren't buried. They keep walking around. They go through the varied motions of normalcy, trying to forget the screams, the shudder of the fuselage, the sound of crumpling metal. The frozen wait among the dead for rescue.


Many years before the fire that killed my parents, there was another fire. In Seoul, Korea, my mother had grown up among a harem of sisters, hoarded like treasure, quarantined like contagion, inside a high wall that contained the buildings and courtyards of the Chung family compound. My grandfather was a high-ranking government official who spent most of his time carousing with kesang girls and gambling at cards. My grandmother, herself the daughter of a high-ranking official, was terse and irritable, weighted by disappointment in birthing only girls.

One night when my mother was eleven, a treat was set up in the cramped building where the servants slept. It was the viewing of one of the first silent films from America, obtained somehow by my grandfather, along with an ancient projector that wheezed and smoked as it threw its jangled images upon the wall.

The room was hot and crowded, but my mother hardly noticed, so taken was she by the figures of the dancing women. They wore loose clothing that floated behind them as they danced, with emblematic jewelry, and makeup that emphasized their wide eyes and sensuous lips. Alabaster skin, marcelled hair piled high. My mother had never seen such women. Their serpentine sway—unaccompanied by music or sound of any kind, except the restless movement of the children and the hawking of the projector—was intricate, hypnotic. They were like Grecian goddesses come to life, like the sculpted caryatids my mother had once seen in a book in her father's library. She began to move along with them, in time to the unheard music. Her older sister Hae Ja pushed her away. "Hsst," she whispered, pinching her hard on the underside of the upper arm.

My mother huddled close to the projector. She watched as the strip of film wound around the metal spools in a tilting figure eight. Light from inside the machine streamed out toward the wall, thick with lolling dust. She looked up at the screen and then down to the projector again, trying to discover where they hid, these bright ladies, slender, swaying columns of pure grace. The old projector sputtered and paused and, before the audience had time to protest, the dancers disappeared in a spreading sepia bubble. Both film and projector burst into flames.

Children and servants began to scream as the room filled with smoke. My mother smelled something acrid and felt a strange prickling at the back of her neck. As the women had danced moments before, now the elderly ajumma who'd been attending the projector danced in spasmodic rhythm, a flume of fire blooming across her chest. The sensation at the back of my mother's neck became a searing pain. Her head was on fire and she fainted before she could push through, with the others, out of the room and into the dirt courtyard, where the adults ran with buckets of water.

An old servant saved her. He rushed inside the room and doused the fire nestled in her hair, carrying her out in his arms.

My grandmother, overwhelmed by daughters, disgraced by them, thought perhaps she would lose one that night, but my mother was not obliging. She survived with no major injury, just a spot, the size of a quarter, where her hair wouldn't grow, and a shiny purple scar, ropy and asymmetrical.

Two Names

After the accident my mother was declared unmarriageable and shipped off to a teachers college in Connecticut. She met my father the first week, at a party for Korean students in Hartford. Three months later she sent a picture home (my father in a trench coat over his best herringbone jacket), but my grandparents objected to the marriage. They had consulted an astrologer who claimed, given my parents' birth dates and the distance between the bottom of my father's nose and his top lip, that it was an inauspicious match.

They married anyway, and my mother dropped out of college to take dance lessons. In a photograph from those days she wore a black leotard with a pink tutu; she's bending down to tie the ribbons on her toe shoes, like a girl in a Degas painting.

She quit when she got pregnant. She told me this without resentment, but frequently enough so I understood that only maternal self-sacrifice had prevented her from a marvelous career. In playful moods, she would reenact the dance of the caryatid women as she remembered it, flowing like water, her arms a tossing sea, twisting and bending in a series of movements suggesting supplication, resistance, ardor, and grief.

Soon after I was born my parents had their first fight. My mother wanted to name me Isadora, after Isadora Duncan, the modern dancer. My father wanted to name me Myung Hee. I can imagine the way the discussion would go, my father's annoyance spiraling around my mother's cool determination, getting fettered in her obstinacy and confusing feminine allure.

"Isadora? Isadora?" I imagine my father saying, the word in his mouth like a bad taste. "What kind of Korean name is that?"

"No kind," my mother says, shrugging. "We're in America now."

"We're still Koreans," he says.

My mother doesn't answer. She smiles, beguiling him with her silence.

"I don't even know any Americans named Isadora," he grumbles.

"What Americans do you know?" my mother chides him. She pauses. "We could name her Ingrid," she says. "Or Ava. Or . . . Vivian."

"No, no," my father says, waving his hands in front of his face. "Please."

So I was named Isadora Myung Hee Sohn and called Isa by everyone but my father.

Apple Peel

My mother wore a wig to conceal her scar. It sat atop a Styrofoam head on her dresser, looking exactly like her real hair, thick and black, styled softly to just beneath the ears. To put it on she slipped both hands inside, fingers splayed as though she were winding yarn, and maneuvered it adroitly atop her head.

The procedure disturbed me, this half head of hair tugged on like a swim cap over my mother's own head, the naked Styrofoam left behind like a bald sentinel. I gouged a face in the Styrofoam with a ballpoint pen—nose like a lopsided L, kewpie lips, blank eyes the shape and size of pumpkin seeds.

My mother placed the wig atop my own head, where it sat like a long-haired lapdog. I looked at myself in the mirror. I was a strange-looking child, with a sallow complexion, my father's high forehead, and a large, crooked mouth. My mother laughed and called me "Beatle."

My mother. Her eyes, when she was happy, glanced across a room like sunlight, dark centers strewn with diamond facets. When she was unhappy, they seemed to retract beneath eyelids precisely outlined in liquid black, her look averted, cast down, all the giddy shine suddenly leached from the world.

For most of my life I watched her, ensorcelled by her beauty, by the daily acts of grace that were her movements. She peeled an apple by moving her thumb backward along the knife, her small hands seeming to float, to flutter, loosing the skin in one long ribbon, until it fell to the plate like a molted snakeskin. She raced down the aisles of the A & P, picking things up—red grapes, Camembert cheese, salmon steak—and tossing them in the grocery cart, as though she were on a TV game show. Tucking me in at night, she sang "Raindrops on Roses" or "Que Sera Sera," in perfect imitation of Doris Day. ". . . Will I be pretty? Will I be rich?" My mother would lean in, her breath hot in my ear. "Both, Isa," she would whisper. "You'll be both," and I'd feel a chill run through me at the maternal prophecy.


If I watched my mother and was enthralled, I looked out for my father for different reasons. He was rarer in our house. For most of my childhood he would return to work after dinner, in pursuit of something called "tenure" that I did not understand but that seemed to hold talismanic power for both my parents. When he was home he was often irritable, snapping at me for biting my fingernails or spilling my milk. I tried not to attract his attention for this reason, though because he was mysterious, I was also drawn to him.

Nighttime was my father's dominion. I'd lie in bed and hear his slippered feet pass my door, pat-patting down the stairs. The door to the freezer would open and close, followed by the tinkling of ice in a glass, and I would picture my father sitting at our kitchen table in his pajamas, nursing a whiskey and water, attentive to the low hum of the refrigerator and the random headlights of passing cars. In the morning his glass would be sitting in the sink, empty except for an amber viscosity at the bottom, which I once swirled and sniffed and stuck my tongue into, recoiling at the burn. Sometimes a Korean magazine would be left on the table, its spine cracked open. My father's battered briefcase would be left on the floor, a yellow legal pad on top with strange characters marked in black—neither Korean nor English but numbers and Greek symbols in neat equations that ran the length of the paper.

These were my father's tracks, his spoor, which he left behind like some nocturnal animal. His insomnia, incurable and lifelong, reinforced the sense of his aloneness, his haunted exile from a world in repose.


When my father spoke to me in Korean, it was harsh, a vocabulary of scolding, of rebuke. "Mae-majeulae?" Do you want a spanking? uttered with a flat palm raised. "Babo!" Stupid! as we went over math problems together, his middle knuckle boring into my head as if to drill an answer into my skull.

In neither Korean nor English was my father voluble. The language of science was his mother tongue, the silver-voiced siren call to mathematical formulation. It was a language I had no ear for, its jargon so much gobbledygook. My father would grow frustrated as he tried to explain to me the second law of thermodynamics, or the concept of cold fusion. "Look," he would say, his hands raised in a gesture that was half threat and half entreaty, "it's not hard." And I'd try to follow him, his English as barbed as concertina wire, the concepts entering my head and leaving it unprocessed, like baggage down a conveyor belt.

Similarly, he failed at teaching me Korean. I remember lessons at the kitchen table, with colored wooden blocks and bowls of fruit. "Sagwa-juseyo." I would hand him an apple. "Bae-juseyo." I would hand him a pear. I would repeat the phrases after him in a dull, uninflected voice, and he would grow impatient at my lack of competence. "No, no, no. Bbbb-ang!" He would make an explosive sound with his lips. "Not bang. Bbbb-ang means bread. Bang is room! How many times do I have to tell you?"

When I was in eighth grade, he shipped me off to the basement of the Korean church. A self-proclaimed atheist and crusader against blind believing, my father had to turn to God to teach me his native language.

On Thursday afternoons, Michael Lee and Danny Kim played paper football across their desks, while I gossiped with Jenny and Eun Gyeong Lee about trampy Su Ok Min and her Hell's Angels boyfriend.

"Did they really do it?" I asked once, only to be met with the cold, mascara-clotted eye of Jenny Lee.

"Whaddya think?" she replied disdainfully. "The guy rides a Harley."

"An-nyeong!" Pastor Park would welcome us each week, with a hopeful expression that quickly turned desperate. "Hanguk-mal halchul-arayo?" Do you know how to speak Korean? And we would refuse to look at him, rolling our eyes and snapping our gum, muttering, "Aaaa-niyo," sullenly under our breath. No.

After six weeks of this, Pastor Park abruptly ended classes. My father eventually gave up trying to teach me either of his two languages. It was my perception that he gave up on me altogether. I was too difficult, too rebellious, too unlike any Korean daughter he could possibly have imagined for himself. "Myung Hee-ya," he would say, "you should have been born a boy." And we would both think about Stephen and say nothing more, because it was true that I should have been, and because it was true that I was not.

From the Hardcover edition.

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