As a way to explore and affirm her Korean heritage, Lee reconstructs the life of her maternal grandmother. Born in 1912 into a well-to-do merchant family, Hongyong Baek had a traditional upbringing, culminating in her wedding day, when she met her husband for the first time. Marriage to her charming and somewhat feckless husband turned out to be happy, and Baek was content with her severely circumscribed role. But life was disrupted by political events. To escape Japanese oppression, Baek and her family joined other Korean refugees in China, where her resourcefulness helped her prosper as a dealer first in sesame oil and later in opium. When 36 years of Japanese occupation ended, she and her family returned home. But peace and prosperity came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of civil war. After incredible hardships, family members were reunited, and Baek used her skills as a healer to restore some measure of financial security. Written with great narrative power and attention to detail, a testament to the will to survive.
In a bio-fic, Lee makes her debut both recounting and imagining her Korean grandmother's eventful life: childhood and marriage under Japanese occupation, opium smuggling in China, and flight during the Korean war.
Lee opens her first-person biography of her grandmother, Hongyong Baek, with a telling fraction of her own storyan all-American California girl, slightly uncomfortable with her grandmother's Korean outlook, who travels to Korea, Hong Kong, and China to trace her roots. But Lee's mannered naïveté about her family's past seems at least in part a narrative device to stir curiosity about her grandmother's life. Likewise, her simplistically novelized recreation of that life is a strategy to acclimate the reader, albeit at the risk of losing sight of history. Lee successfully grounds such matters as her grandmother's pampered childhood and arranged marriage within the context of Korean culture, vividly illuminating family relationships, power struggles, and the realities of daily life in pre-Communist Korea. But the irritating imagined sections, with stilted dialogue and interior musingssuch as Hongyong's marriage ceremony and her wedding nightare extravagantly intimate and unsatisfying. Nor does Lee seem to have full command of the background to the family's exile to China, where Hongyong entrepreneurially took up opium smuggling (and the healing art of Chiryo), nor to her grandmother's persecution under the North Korean Communist regime for converting to Christianity. Lee incorporates little sense of history beyond vague sentiments and a few important dates; the Japanese occupation and the Communist regime dwindle into a hazy background. Only with the Korean war is there a sense of living through history as Hongyong and her four youngest children make the harrowing trek south as refugees.
The human interest of Hongyong's story is compelling, but its treatment will likely strike readers as incomplete.