Review Blog

May 23 2013

When my name was Keoko by Linda Sue Park

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University of Queensland Press, 2013. ISBN 9780702249747.
Daily life for Sun Hee and her family becomes almost intolerable when the Japanese invade Korea during the Second World War. Hungry for resources to supply the war effort, the brutal new masters strip the local population of food, possessions and even young men to fill the ranks of their army. When the dictatorial regime becomes so oppressive that the Korean citizens are ordered to change their names and speak Japanese, tensions develop in Sun Hee's family as they struggle to maintain their security and identity.
This story is told over several years from the perspective of Sun Hee, an obedient and dutiful daughter with contributions from her older brother Tae Yul who displays understandable anger and resentment towards the new regime. The reader feels great sympathy for this close knit and loving family which had been leading a simple, wholesome and fulfilling existence before their country was annexed.
Readers are led gently down a path which prompts the deep consideration of what constitutes honourable and courageous behaviour in opposition to tyrannical rule. The impotent rage of the teenager is presented side by side with the undeniable courage of the uncle who actively works in resistance and risks violent death in doing so. The children's father shows a different sort of courage however as he personally accepts humiliation but must also counsel his family members to meekly accept ignominy and exploitation to preserve their safety. Female characters such as Sun Hee, her mother and neighbours demonstrate their bravery in different ways, defying their rulers and choosing to protect the weak rather than submit to bullying abusers of power.
Characters who comply with the Japanese are not presented as traitors but as victims of circumstance who are perhaps less stoic and robust as their peers who seethe against the regime. Readers cannot help but ponder their own courage under such oppressive circumstance and consider at what point the hunger of their children (or themselves) would cause them to buckle.
There is a sense of hope which prevails throughout this story and whilst the family endures devastating events which bed the narrative down in reality, it does not degenerate into a traumatic tale of familial or national ruin.
Rob Welsh

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