Year of Impossible Goodbyes
"Grade 5-9— Ten-year-old Sookan tells of her Korean family’s experiences during the Japanese occupation as World War II ends. The Japanese commit cruel, fear-provoking acts against this proud, hopeful family and against the young girls who worked in a sweatshop making socks for the Japanese army. Relief, hope, and anticipation of the return of male family members after the Japanese defeat is short lived as the Russians occupy the country, bringing their language, their customs, and communism to the village. Equally as insensitive to the pride and possessions of the Koreans, they are as bad as the Japanese. Plans are made for Sookan, her mother, and younger brother to escape to South Korea. However, their guide betrays them, causing the children to be separated from their mother, and the two begin a daring and frightening journey to cross the 38th parallel to safety. Through Sookan, the author shares an incredible story of the love and determination of her family, the threatening circumstances that they endured during occupations by two totalitarian governments, and the risks they took to escape to freedom. Readers will get a double bonus from this book—a good story, well told, and the reaffirmation of our faith in the human spirit against incredible adversities ." (text taken from Amazon)
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Insightful and inspirational insight into the plight of the Korean people in the 1940's
Year of Impossible Goodbyes
Book Review: A Tale of Triumph
By Corinne Rivero
As a 7th grade Spanish teacher at Saucon Valley middle school, I would use this book to teach Advisory lessons to my 12 and 13 year old Advisory students. This story is appropriate for readers of that age. It can be used as an Advisory tool to illustrate the power of human triumph over oppression. It can also be used in Social Studies classes for World History as the story also provides important background information and insight to spark conversations that will help students have a fuller understanding of the political ramifications of WWII, The Cold War, the Korean War, and even today’s unfortunate situation on the Korean peninsula. I would also recommend it for a Current Events class. Most kids that age hear news blurbs about North Korea. This book helps them to understand how we got to the place that we are today! Finally, as a Spanish teacher, I talk a lot in class about how languages grow extinct every day on our planet due to linguistic oppression. This story gives a first hand account of what it is like to have an oppressive force try to eradicate your language by replacing it with the oppressor’s language. Allow me to expand on these ideas...
Sook Nuyl Choi’s Year of Impossible Goodbyes is the heartbreaking yet inspiring story of a Korean family’s struggle to survive oppression while finding a path to freedom on the treacherous journey south of the infamous 38th parallel. The story is told through the ten year old eyes of its main character, Sookan. She tells the tale of the daily
injustices she and her family suffered in 1945 Korea. Sookan and her family must endure enormous hardships in order to maintain their human dignity under the oppressive Japanese as well as Russians forces. Sookan’s story provides hope because it highlights the power of family love and human preservience in the face of total degradation and injustice.
One of the many injustices Sookan endured when the Japanese invaded Korea was linguistic oppression. Typical of colonial powers throughout history, the Korean language was forbidden to be spoken in school or in the community. Korean families had to be weary of being overheard by the Japanese Imperial Police such as Captain Narita. In school, children were instructed in Japanese and were punished if teachers were to hear the Korean language spoken. Linguistic oppression has been a popular tool throughout the ages however Sookan’s story immediately reminded me of how the Gaelic language of Ireland was nearly annihilated by the English oppressors and how the Native American languages were similarly destroyed by sending Indigenious students to schools where their native languages were looked down upon and forbidden by our own government. Despite the attempt to assimilate the Korean people to their culture by prohibiting the Korean language, Sookan and her family were able to hold on to their Korean language and identity.
Speaking of identity, another injustice suffered by Sookan was the inner turmoil that oppression created toward her own Korean identity. When society constantly tells her that the Korean people are inferior and touts the superiority of the Japanese people and culture, it starts to chip away at Sookan’s spirit. She makes several references in the
book that she wished “she was Japanese.” This is a normal occurrence of oppressed people. Whether it be racism or colorism, people who are constantly bombarded with the message that the “other” is superior began to believe it. Fortunately, the strength and love of her strong family members such as Sookan’s mother and help to keep Sookan from total self loathing as they modeled faith, Korean pride, and strength through their actions toward survival.
Although one could argue that being able to maintain sanity in such a dreadful circumstance is enough to qualify Sookan’s existence as a triumph, the strength of this ten year old girl is even more inspirational as she makes the dangerous journey away from the Communist Russians and toward reuniting with her long lost father and brothers on the American side of the 38th parallel. Her love for her younger brother propelled her to continue to be courageous and fight against the odds to make it to freedom. Her struggle reminded me of the struggle that African Americans endured during the time of the Underground Railroad. The uncertainty of not knowing which adult she could trust or who would be a double agent that could detain or kill her or her family was an extremely painful situation, especially for such a young child.
After reading this book, I was very touched and inspired by the physical, mental, and spiritual faith that these Korean characters had to endure in order to flee oppression. As an American, Sookan’s struggle enlightened me about the political ramifications of WWII and the Cold War. It gave me a clearer understanding of the politics that unfolded and led to what the current and unfortunate situation on the Korean peninsula. It is a reminder to never forget the Korean struggle and to appreciate
the freedoms that I have been blessed with by simply being born in a different era in a different country. I would hope that I had the same amount of courage, faith, love, and strength to triumph in the way that Sookan and her family managed to do during their Year of Impossible Goodbyes.
Year of Impossible Goodbyes, a lifetime of ordeals in one year's time
Year of Impossible Goodbyes, by North Korean emigre Sook Nyul Choi, breaks readers hearts with the sorts of ordeals and life-changes that no one, let alone a child, should have to endure.
Sookan, at age 10, is living in Pyongyang with her grandfather, her mother, her younger brother, and her aunt. The family is responsible for running a small sock factory, toiling to support the occupying Japanese forces in their fight against the American “White Devils.” From suffering under the Japanese occupation, to losing loved ones, the period of WWII takes its toll on young Sookan. Life’s struggles continue when the Japanese army is replaced by the Russian army and the nascent Communism growing in post-war North Korea. Realizing they don’t fit in, Sookan and her family decide to flee to the South. The journey opens up new fears, and brings with it more crushing goodbyes.
Year of Impossible Goodbyes is told in the first person, through the eyes of Sookan. The pain, fear, and confusion she feels are palpable and all the more sad coming directly from her mouth. The novel is 169 pages of very readable prose, rich in description. It is suitable to readers in grades 6 to 9, and would pair well with a bit of historical context for students. It could serve as an interesting parallel to, or even replacement for, a study of Anne Frank’s Holocaust ordeal, which is often taught at the middle school level.
Good high school reading
Review of ‘Year of Impossible Goodbyes’ by Sook Nyul Choi
By: Joe Brogan
This is a novel about the Japanese occupation of Korea and the Korean peoples fight to maintain their identity. Once the Japanese are finally defeated their joy is short-lived because then they were under the control of the Russian Communists. This book is an easy read and a good history lesson. The novel gives a good look into Korean culture but also a depressing view into the Japanese occupation. This book evokes an emotional response for its readers. I believe it is a good book for high school students.
The novel is centered on a family in Korea who are forced to run a sock factory to supply the Japanese military. The family has been forced to give up their culture, language, religion, and even their Korean names. Captain Narita, who oversees the factory, can stop by any time and even invade the privacy of their home. He is cruel and is always dissatisfied with the output of the factory.
The head of the family, Hyunsuk, has already lost her 3 sons and her husband. They were unaccounted for in the Korean independence movement and may or may not be alive. She is caring for her aged father, mother-in-law and 2 young children. She does her best to care for them and has had to sell everything for food. The Japanese have nothing left to take from her and she has no more to give for food. Her aged father dies early on. He tried to keep the Korean culture alive by secretly teaching the children in the evenings. He dies shortly after being humiliated by the Captain.
When Hyunsuk’s 2 young children are old enough they are forced to go to a Japanese school. There they are forced to speak Korean, worship the emperor, and do hard labor for their teachers. The wife of the Captain runs the school. Also around this time the young female workers who make socks for Hyunsuk are taken away to service the Japanese soldiers. Now she has no income at all.
Peace comes, in a way, when the Russians defeat the Japanese and things go well for about a year. Once the Russians have established themselves, and gotten some of the Koreans on their side, they turn cruel just as the Japanese were. The family finally decides to escape to the South.
They pay a secret guide to take them to the South but he cheats them and turns them in. The children are separated from their Mother. Eventually the children make their way to the South and reunite with their Father. And also eventually Hyunsuk makes it to the south and they are all reunited including the 2 lost brothers.
This is a very good book and an easy read. Once you finish a chapter its hard not to go on to the next to find out what happens. I believe high school students would enjoy this book. It relates a good history lesson and a realistic look at a people living under an occupied force. Having a happy ending helps also.
Reviewed by Gina Lombardi
9th Grade Social Studies Teacher
Plum Borough School District
Set in 1945, Year of Impossible Goodbyes is a historical novel that tells the story of a family's bond, courage and determination to find freedom during the Japanese occupation of North Korea at the end of World War II. The novel is written in the first person and is told through the eyes of Sookan, the author's main character. Ten-year-old Sookan lives with her mother, grandfather, aunt, cousin and little brother in the Japanese occupied North Korean city of Pyongyang. Sookan's father has escaped to Manchuria to work with the resistance movement and her two older brothers have been sent to Japanese labor camps. The plot of the novel is driven by the cruel and horrific experiences the family must endure under the Japanese military. Despite these brutal conditions, Sookan and her family do not allow their spirits to break and rather hold out hope that the Americans and/or the male members of their family will come soon to save them from their current situation. When the war finally ends, Sookan and her family believe the wonderful life they had prior to Japanese occupation will return. However, they are surprised to learn that Communist Russia has occupied North Korea and once again the family is suppressed. The family soon realizes their only chance for true happiness and freedom is to attempt the dangerous escape to the American-occupied South Korea. The novel concludes with the suspenseful tale of the escape of Sookan and her family to the south.
The novel is recommended for students in grades 5 through 9. After reading the book, I also felt it would be most appropriate for students in middle school or junior high school. The students are around the age of the main character which would allow them to have more of a connection to the story. Plus, the novel is an easy read with language that is age appropriate.
Recommendations For The Classroom
I would recommend using this novel a number of ways. First, this novel could be used to teach students why Korea (North and South) is the way it is today. In conjunction with the novel, classroom instruction could focus on a number of content related topics. Topics could include the reasons for Japanese occupation of Korea during WWII, the events that led to the Korean War in the 1950s as well as the two drastically different Koreas that formed following the war. A further breakdown of each of the topics previously stated could include an analysis of the vastly contrasting political, social and economic characteristics of the Koreas.
This novel could also be used to provide students with a different perspective on World War II, the Korean War as well as life under communism. The story is told through the author's own childhood experiences. Thus, the reader is shown how those living under Japanese and Russian rule viewed their oppressors. In addition, the author explains how the Koreans (as well as the Japanese) viewed the Americans and their involvement in both wars. So often students in America are only brought the story of United States and World History through the eyes of their fellow Americans, therefore, this novel would provide the students with a first-hand perspective of those who have had their lives shaped by such horrific events.
For this novel to be most effective, students will need to have an understanding and background knowledge on World War II, Japanese occupation of Korea during WWII and Russian occupation of Korea following WWII. Without an understanding of such topics, students may get lost in the novel or be unaware of what the author is talking about from time to time. Therefore, background information is definitely needed prior to reading the novel.
Good Choice for Middle School
6th Grade English Teacher
Shady Side Academy
This book is very appropriate for 6-8 graders. I hesitate to teach it to a lower grade level simply because the underlying topic is so complicated, and I would not want them to make oversimplified conclusions based on one families experiences during what was obviously a very difficult situation for all those involved. The reading level, however, is not difficult.
The main character, Sookan is ten in 1945 when the novel takes places and is terrified of the Japanese soldiers. Her mother supervises a sock factory and her older brothers and father have been taken away to labor camps.
The book does a nice job showing family life and how close the family is. The grandfather is a central figure and a scholar, so he is able to teach Sookan to read and write Korean secretly even though the Japanese forbids it. Her grandfather is also Buddhist while other members of her family are Christian including an aunt who is a nun, so the family discusses religion, and Sookan wonders about it. Her mother keeps her out of school as long as possible, but eventually she does go, so the reader experiences the Japanese school and the difficulties of attending a school with harsh masters who don’t speak your language. At the end of the war, North Korea is taken over by Communist Russia and Sookan’s family does not agree with the Communist ideals, so they, like many others, want to escape to South Korea. They pretend to play good party members, but plan and eventually try to escape to South Korea, but are taken in by a double agent. Sookan and her brother are separated from her mother. This is very exciting for readers, but I am sure was very common as well.
Students must understand that this novel is the perspective of one Korean family living under the Japanese Occupation. The novel can seem very anti-Japanese if the students do not understand how so many countries and people suffered during this time. I would use the book as part of a book club to demonstrate this and choose other books that take place during WWII in different parts of the world. You could choose a book demonstrating what Japanese-Americans went through in interment camps, books taking place in Europe, with citizens’ and soldiers’ points of views. I have had actual book clubs where students chose one of five or so books, or I have given the students a list of ten or fifteen books and they choose one. With both options, I think it is important to give the entire class a chance to talk about their books together, so they are gaining a better understanding of how the war affected different people. With both options I think that journaling works well. I think this would be a great study in perspective and identity.
You could also use the book as one in a collection of books taking place in Korean, so the students could get a better understanding of Korea.
Review of "Year of Impossible Goodbyes"
Told through the eyes of 10 year old Sookan, readers expereience Korea during the Japanese occupation during the 1940’s.
With Sookan’s father living in Manchuria and some of her brothers living in Japan, , Sookan, 2 of her brothers, her mother, and Aunt “Tiger”, keep the household running. The Japanese have placed many restrictions on the Koreans including limiting their rice allotment, requisitioning their valuables, not allowing them to speak Korean, and having their Korean names taken away and changed to Japanese ones. When World War II ends, and the Japanese begin their retreat Korea and China, the Russians come to Korea, take over the country, and institute Communism. Aunt Tiger and her older brother join the communist as a ruse to help Sookan, her mother and little brother secretly leave the northern part of Korea and escape to the southern part where her father an brothers are waiting. Through some harrowing twists, they three eventually make their way to freedom and the rest of their family.
How to use The Year of Impossible Goodbyes in the classroom
The Year of Impossible Goodbyes is written on a 6th grade reading level. It would be an appropriate novel for middle school age students or high school students reading below grade level. The real life action will captivate readers and easily lends itself to discussion. Students unfamiliar with his aspect of world events may be surprised at this aspect of World War II. Consequently, background knowledge will need to be introduced prior to reading.
Possible discussion topics (critical thinking) for students
• How was Sookan’s school day different from yours (academic vs war preparation)?
• How would you feel/react to not being able to speak your native language? Having your name changed?
• How ere the communist Russians different from/the same as the Japanese in their control over the northern part of Korea?
• The Korean children’s childhood was not what most of us picture as a “normal” childhood. How was Sookan able to cope with all the restrictions placed on her?
• When Sookan, her little brother, and her mother make the dangerous decision to leave their home and go to South Korea, they faced many perils. How do you think “freedom” played a part in this? Would the chance to be “free” be a reason to takes risks/chances?
• What does the title, The Year of Impossible Goodbyes mean to you?