Blossoms and Bayonets is historical fiction based on the life of coauthor Hi-Dong Chai who was a boy in Seoul, Korea during World War II.
The novel opens on February 23, 1942 and ends on November 1, 1945. The story is told through three main characters:
- He-Seung, a sixteen year old high school boy who is full of anger primarily towards the Japanese who are attempting to eradicate Korean culture and superimpose their own culture. He is also angry at his father, a Christian pastor who seems to He-Seung like he is doing nothing to oppose the Japanese yet he doesn't come close to sparing the rod on his own children.
- Baby He-Dong, He-Seung's younger brother who is in 2nd grade at the start of the novel and a bit of a mamma's boy in his older brother's eyes. He-Dong tries to honor is father, mother, and older brother. He lives in fear of almost everyone and is tormented by the fear of not doing the right thing and God punishing his family as a result. My heart went out to him for this--whatever brand of Christianity his father followed, it wasn't one that gave a young boy comfort.
- Mother (Uhmony), an obedient wife and loving mother. At the beginning of the book she's a bit of a doormat, doing her best to serve her husband and sons (there are three sons total, the eldest is off studying) and not thinking much beyond the congregation that her husband oversees. Like many women of her time and station, she's illiterate. The changes happening around her are confusing, but after her husband is arrested she's forced to start taking some initiative on her own.
There is so much packed into this book, yet it reads smoothly: how the Japanese attempt to control the Koreans--from making them take out their Rose of Sharon and planting Cherry Blossoms, to forbidding the speaking of Korean in school, to mandating only the Emperor of Japan be worshiped-- the atrocity of Japanese comfort woman, the place of women in Korean society and in the family, sibling relations & hierarchy, the building of the railroad along the Burma border (think of the movie Bridge on the River Kwai), the fierce fighting on Okinawa, the coverup of Japanese bombing in Oregon, the US reneging on freeing Korea and giving half to Russia, and the attraction of communism are just some of the historical realities woven into the story.
The Korean folk tale of the Story Bag plays a big role, both directly and symbolically.
The chapters are short and alternate between the three characters making the book compulsively readable. Quotes from historians and the big players of the day begin each chapter which gives context to the chapter and the book over-all. You get a feel for the attitude and prejudices of the period.
But mainly it's caring about these characters that made the book one I couldn't wait to get back to reading. It also whetted my appetite to learn more about Korean history and for some kimchee!
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