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I read Min Jin Lee's Pachinko with the goal of adding it to my 3-year rotating middle school gifted curriculum, as a way of teaching my students about Korean history - before, during and after WWII. Early on in the novel, it was pretty clear that a few of the concepts were a little too adult in nature to be middle school appropriate. High school, or even college students would be a better audience for using this book as a teaching tool.
First off, I LOVED this book.
It is a sweeping epic that takes place over generations.
Don't read on if you don't want to know about the plot and storyline.
Min Jin Lee has that smoothness about her writing skill that keeps the reader hopelessly engaged. Her character development is thorough and immediate. I found myself wanting to spend more time getting to know not only Hoonie, (the first main character of our story...) but also his parents. But no. She goes and kills them off. She’s like a Korean George R.R. Martin!! Hahaha. No one is safe!
The social hierarchy of the Koreans on the island of Yeongdo is pretty well laid out. Laborers near the bottom (fishermen), then small business owners, (Yangjin & Hoonie/marketplace), landlords, clergy (Isak), and then supervisors and executives (Honsu). Wealth equates power in their world and it is very difficult to rise above the station into which you were born. I did find Honsu’s tale of growing up very intriguing. He seemed to come from humble beginnings and was able to work his way up into a more prosperous lifestyle.
The Japanese occupation of Korea as seen through the eyes and comments of the island inhabitants shows their disdain. Jun, the coalman, is not shy about voicing his opinions. Even Fatso and his brothers had strong opinions of the Japanese. It seemed that only Hansu was indifferent and explained that they shouldn’t ‘be vilified’ and that ‘nobody likes losing’. He even went as far as to say that if the Koreans would ‘stop quarreling with each other, they could probably take over Japan and do much worse things to the Japanese instead.”
At this point, the Japanese occupation is pervasive – to the point that even their tiny island is home to many Japanese and their schoolchildren. The teenage boys who assaulted Sunja definitely held themselves to a higher social level than hers. They had no reservation about insulting her and making belittling comments, even if she couldn’t fully understand their language. It’s been awhile since I’ve studied the historic particulars of the occupation, but I seem to recall specific details about how Koreans weren’t allowed to speak in their native language or study/learn about their own history and heritage during this time. The Japanese intended to force all things Korean out of Korea. It must have been a very volatile and trying time for the entire country.
The story progresses through many years and follows the lives of Sunja's children as the grow up and deal with the effects of a post WWII society as Korean men. There is much detailed information that revolves around family hierarchy, religion, and politics. Sunja's boys have spent their formative years growing up as children of war. It’s truly all they know. The war has dictated where they live, how they interact with society and prevented them from returning to their homeland of Korea with their mother – which they have never even seen. The war keeps them impoverished and uncertain of their future. Yoseb, their uncle was seriously burned after the bombing in Nagasaki. This left him basically an invalid, unable to work and dependent on others – which he hated. He still viewed himself as the family breadwinner and being unable to provide was shameful for him.
I won't go into too much further detail...but I do recommend this book. It is a testament to the will of the Korean people who remained strong-willed and determined during the Japanese occupation of Korea during WWII. And to the Koreans who were pushed off of their homelands and made to suffer unthinkable indignities at the hands of the Japanese.