In 1992, South Korean women began a weekly demonstration that lasted more than twenty years. The Wednesday Demonstrations were a demand for an apology and compensation for the treatment of “comfort women“—women who were forced into sexual slavery before and during World War II. White Chrysanthemum, by Mary Lynn Bracht, tells the story of two Korean women. One woman, Hana, is captured by a Japanese officer who rapes her and sends her to a brothel in Manchuria. Her younger sister, Emi, attends the Wednesday Demonstrations decades later in an attempt to find out what happened to Hana.
Hana and Emi come from a long line of haenyeo, women who deep dive in the waters off of Jeju Island to feed and support their families. Emi was only a year into her training as a diver, preparing to join her sister and mother, when Hana was spotted in the water by a Japanese corporal one day in 1943. To save her sister from being abducted, Hana lied about being the only girl on the beach. The lie works, but it meant that Hana would experience horrors no one should ever face. The chapters that tell her story are heartbreaking. She struggles with abuse, physical hardship, suicidal thoughts, and the corporal’s delusions that they are in love.
Emi’s chapters, set in 2011, alternate with her sister’s. Emi survived World War II and the Korean War relatively intact. Now she is burdened with survivor’s guilt. She knows the general outlines of what happened to Hana, but she doesn’t know if Hana lived or died. Her children don’t know, and they’re more than a little bewildered by their mother’s actions and obsession with the Wednesday Demonstrations.
Bracht includes an author’s note at the end of White Chrysanthemum that give a bit more historical background on what happened to Korean women during the war and how the Korean and Japanese governments have spared over what should be done for them in the decades since. The author’s note also explains, if readers were not already aware of the history, how her protagonists represent the women themselves and their family members who were left behind to wonder about them ever since. White Chrysanthemum, I think, is extraordinarily articulate in how it deals with the emotional trauma of both women and the people they represent. It is delicate, thoughtful, but packs an emotional wallop that I’m going to be recovering from for a long time.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 30 January 2018.