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The Calligrapher's Daughter

by Eugenia Kim

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The Calligrapher's Daughter by Eugenia Kim
© Henry Holt and Company
Henry Holt and Company, August 2009

The time period of this enthralling novel - summer 1915 to December 1945 - covers a tumultuous period in the history of Korea as told through the eyes of a calligrapher's daughter. Traditional Korean mores are being shunted aside by the invading Japanese in a brutal attempt to wipe out Korean language and culture completely. Their acquisition of Korea came through the support of both China and the United States who saw it as a way to stop what these two countries perceived as unbridled Russian expansion into the region. Japan was a "geographical sister, racial enemy, the rigid master of an enslaved nation, exiled home of the crumbling remains of Korea's royal family..."
The Calligrapher's Daughter is excellent on so many levels. It is a historical novel that chronicles Japan's tragic 35-year occupation of Korea, its attempts to obliterate "Korea" and turn it into a western province of Japan by relocating children and families to Japan, teaching only Japanese in the schools, and by a myriad of other, more violent methods. It is also a biographical novel for, told through the eyes of the calligrapher's daughter, Han Najin, it reflects many of the personal experiences of the author's parents. This personal approach certainly draws the reader more deeply into the story than a dry historical account might. It is a love story. Patriotism and what oppressed people do to preserve their way of life is a central theme. Parental, filial, and conjugal love play central roles.
There is also a strong religious element, as Christianity has co-existed with Buddhism for nearly 400 years. Korea is unique in that missionaries did not bring Christianity to the peninsula; rather, printed bibles were brought in by travelers in 1631, and resulted in a religious movement that grew bit by bit and still flourishes. Cultural conflict plays a central role. Obviously, there is the conflict between Koreans and Japanese. The calligrapher represents the old ways, a man steeped in tradition, who, even in the depths of poverty would not sell one of his scrolls because that would degrade the art. The daughter is "Like a monsoon wind. Everything inside comes wildly out of (her) mouth." She is bright and ambitious, two unimportant characteristics in the life of a Korean female of the time.

All of these themes are wrapped up in Najin. She spends two years at the Emperor's court, and later becomes a nurse and midwife and marries. Najin sees the bible "as a chronicle of a foreign people's faith and history rather than a map that would lead me to salvation." Ironically, it is a nascent faith that delivers her from a Slough of Despond. Her family is upper class but when marriage to a potential suitor of a lower class is being considered, her mother equivocates by saying "I believe his moral worth can counterbalance his lack of class distinction."
Eugenia Kim's first novel provides an engaging journey through the Korea of the first half of the Twentieth Century. Characters are well-developed and merit our attention. They face, and usually conquer, realistic situations. The daughter of Korean immigrant parents, she has previously published short stories and essays. She now lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband and son.
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