Sumi Hahn's THE MERMAID OF JEJU - Love and Bravery in a Time of War
by Ashley Dickson-Ellison (@teachingtheapocalypse)
This beautiful historical fiction novel explores the situation in Jeju during World War II as Japanese occupation ended and American soldiers came to occupy the island. Many thanks to Libro.fm for access to the audio of Sumi Hahn's The Mermaid of Jeju, which just came out in December! I loved this audiobook, but I am sure I would have enjoyed the print version as well.
This book opens with the present time and shows Junja's moment of death as an older woman in America surrounded by her husband and two daughters. From there, we go back to the 1940s on Jeju island in Korea where young Junja is a haenyeo (a female diver) like her mother and grandmother. Early on in the story, Junja offers to take her mother's place to venture from their village up to the nearby mountain village to barter the abalone they caught for a pig. On that journey, she meets Suwol, who becomes an important part of the events that follow.
Upon her return from the journey, Junja is told that her mother was badly injured in a diving accident while she was gone, and her mother dies soon after that. Although she continues to think it was a diving accident, Suwol tries to share with Junja the corruption surrounding them and the way that people are capturing and killing citizens, claiming that they have communist sympathies. Meanwhile, the world around Junja shifts, and both Suwol and Junja's grandmother harbor secrets as they try to protect their families. Characters like Constable Lee, who becomes a friend and ally to Junja's grandmother, show how complicated allegiances must be during war times.
This book highlights how brutal the transition after Japanese occupation was for the citizens of Jeju, and Junja's story shows the impact of those historic events on individual lives. I love this beautiful book that celebrates the strength and resilience of the haenyeo and the people of Jeju while also acknowledging the brutality of the war period and honoring the lives lost.
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