Book Review: White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht

Hana, come home. Her sister’s voice is loud in her ears, jolting her back to the present, to the room and the solider still asleep on the floor beside her. The ceremony fades into the darkness. Desperate not to let it go, Hana squeezes her eyes shut.

She has been held captive for nearly two months, but time moves painfully slow in this place. She tries not to look back on what she has endured, what they force her to do, what they command her to be. At home, she was someone else, something else.

White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht brings to life yet another devastating aspect of history: the reality of countless Korean women and girls who were captured and forced into a life of sexual slavery by the Japanese army during WWII. Known colloquially as “comfort women”, these girls were taken from their homes and the streets of their villages and transported to various regions where they were housed in decrepit brothels, left to service the Japanese soldiers. This story focuses on Hana, a Korean girl of sixteen, taken from the beaches of her homeland in Korea and her sister, Emi who was spared a similar fate by the bravery of her eldest sister.

“Did you hear what I said? You are a big sister now, and with that comes responsibilities, and the first one is that of protector. I won’t always be around; diving in the sea and selling at the market keeps us fed, and it will be left up to you to watch over your little sister from now on when I can’t. Can I rely on you?” her mother asked, her voice stern. Hana’s hand shot back to her side. She bowed her head and dutifully answered. “Yes, Mother, I will keep her safe. I promise.” “A promise is forever, Hana. Never forget.”

While diving for shellfish along the Korean seashore, working along side her mother as a haenyeo, Hana is tasked to assist with the culling of the depth of the ocean for fresh abalone and sea urchins to sell at the market while also keeping a close eye on her younger sister, Emi, who sits in the sand, guarding their treasured wares. When she spots a distant solider, slowly approaching the space where her sister sits unawares, Hana swims with every ounce of strength she has, determined to reach her sister before the soldier does and to fulfill her sisterly duty as protector. Little does she know the extent of the consequences of her actions, though her promise to her mother leaves her no other choice.

Hana is captured, and sent to the horrendous fate that awaits her and many other girls, where she is tortured, raped and beaten into submission at the hands of countless Japanese soldiers. Her journey takes her from her seaside home to a brothel in Manchuria where she learns of the extent of human evil, suffering and strength.

A knife she knows how to wield. She dove with one every day, cutting abalone from the reef beds, harvesting seaweed, and even prying open that odd oyster left behind by the Japanese oyster boats. She would carve out his heart as if it were a pearl tucked deep inside of an oyster’s flesh. The thought sends trickles up her spine, fingers of revenge dancing on her vertebrae. Is this what courage feels like? She imagines stabbing him in the chest, the surprise on his face. Her anger courses through her veins.

Alternating between Hana’s harrowing experiences, we also learn of Emi’s future after the day she was saved by her sister. Now an elderly woman, Emi’s life has too been marred by the troubles of WWII, only to a different extent. Slowly, her story is revealed, bringing with it more atrocities and the unresolved shame Emi has carried with her all this time.

So many years have passed since the war ended, since the protests began, yet still the crimes go unpunished. What does it require to deserve an apology? To give one?

Returning for years to the ceremony held in honor of the ‘comfort women’, Emi searches their faces for hints of the brave girl she once knew, hoping against hope to find her in the crowd. What she finds still, is the love she has created in her new family, her children which serve as a bright spot in the utter darkness of the wars she has survived.

Hidden away in the depths of history, the stories of the atrocities experienced by the women of Korea during WWII and beyond are only just now being realized. With great care and detail, Bracht has sculpted the two characters of Hana and Emi to represent the history of Korean women, in this instance, and the sheer courage they possessed in times of torment and subservience; struggling all the while to rise above.

“I am a haenyeo,” she says, and glares at him. Her words rush over her lips like a confession. “Like my mother, and her mother before her, like my sister will be and one day, her daughters, too—I was never anything but a woman of the sea. Neither you nor any man can make me less than that.”

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A review copy of this title was provided by G.P. Putnam’s Sons

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