Today I finished this difficult, yet critical novel set during WWII and recent times. White Chrysanthemum (Putnam, 2018) by Mary Lynn Bracht tells the story of Emi and Hana, two Korean sisters who grew up on Jeju Island, just south of Korea. Their mother and their mother’s mother and women going back generations in their family had been divers who were able to support themselves from the seafood they harvested and sold at the markets. But one day a Japanese soldier came for 9 year old Emi, and 16 year old Hana offered herself to save her sister (hidden behind some large rocks).
What happened to Hana is horrifying. It was hard for me to read and I’m a WWII history nut who has read about the Rape of Nanking and the comfort women and the Holocaust. And it’s still hard to read. There’s a line in the book that stayed with me for the rest of the story and even now: All wars are crimes against the world’s women and girls. If you don’t understand that now, you will after reading this book.
Hana was taken to a building in Manchuria, which is northeast China now and had been run by Russia for a while and was taken by the Japanese in the early 1930s. So when Hana went up to Manchuria, it was to become a “comfort woman” for Japanese soldiers. I hate the term “comfort women” because it softens what was really going on. These girls and women were trafficked into sex slavery and there was nothing comfortable about it. It was rape, over and over and over again.
But back to the story. Emi herself didn’t fare very well even though she was saved from the Japanese. After WWII, her father was murdered just before the Korean War started because he was viewed as a communist for no reason other than he wasn’t originally from Jeju Island. At the age of 14, Emi was forced to marry a southern policeman to purify the south and make sure there weren’t communist sympathizers on Jeju. Emi had two children who were in their late 50s and early 60s when we meet them in the book. They knew nothing of their mother’s past and had no idea they had an aunt.
Bracht is a beautiful writer and tells this story in alternating voices between Emi and Hana. She doesn’t sugar coat anything about the history and what’s going on now. For instance, in 2015, Japan and South Korea came to an “agreement” where a statue honoring the Korean women trafficked into slavery was removed from an area near the Japanese embassy in Seoul. Removing the statue was a compromise so the Japanese could save a little face before looking into this part of the war. But almost three years have passed and nothing at all has been done. And because this is being erased and not taught in history books, we don’t know how many Korean women fell victim to sex slavery. Bracht writes that 50,000 to 200,000 women were trafficked into sex slavery, but nothing was said of this until the early 1990s when women started speaking up. Today there are less than 50 survivors still alive.
White Chrysanthemum is an important book and one that needs to be read by men and women. As Bracht says in her author’s note at the end, if we don’t learn about and recognize this history, we are bound to repeat it again as we have around the world since WWII. All wars are crimes against the world’s women and girls.