Book Review: Year of Impossible Goodbyes by Sook Nyul Choi
If I could give this novel more than five stars, I would! I can’t believe how long it has taken me to read this distressing, but uplifting piece of historical fiction that reminds me of how precious freedom is.
Years ago, students had enthusiastically recommended this book to me. Middle school students. Enthused about historical fiction. I took note. I remember the students telling me that they couldn’t tell me too much without ruining the story and I remember writing the book title down.
Now this occurred around the year 2000. Before I was on Goodreads. I had a binder system of book lists, articles, notes, post-its. A fine collection of paper napkins covered with ink-smeared writing of book titles and author names. A truly official and highly organized system of chaos.
When I started cataloguing online all of my reading, I was so relieved. My one mistake was glancing through my “to-be-read” binder too quickly. I overlooked and dismissed too many books.
The group of children who were such fans of this Korean’s family struggle at the end of WWII happen to be among some of my favorite children I’ve taught over the years. They liked reading, but were particular about what books they would recommend whole-heartedly. I never forgot how passionately they talked about this story.
Several years ago I heard about Escape from Camp 14 on one of my favorite podcasts Books on the Nightstand. I listened to that audiobook and my memory of this historical fiction recommendation was jarred. The problem was that I could not remember the title except for the words impossible and goodbye.
Luckily, those key words lead me to Sook Nyul Choi’s beautifully crafted story. Once I purchased a copy of the book, it sat on my bookshelf for a few years. At 170 pages, I felt like I could read this novel in a weekend…easily. And I finally have.
The story opens in Korea as WWII is winding down. Sookan and several members of her family live outside of Pyongyang in fear of the Japanese. The first half of the book records their constant fear in managing the sock factory for Captain Narita, the Japanese officer who represents the Japanese Empire and Our Heavenly Emperor.
Any wrong word could cause the family to be separated. Special punishments would be devised to break their spirit. Food rations would disappear. Food distributed might be a bag of rice half-filled with sand.
One of the most heart-breaking scenes is one of the first impossible goodbyes. Sookan and her cousin Kisa have special bonds with the sock girls, the girls who work in the factory Sookan’s mother manages. Captain Narita arrives to take the sock girls away to the front lines where they will be comfort women who will give the soldiers special spirit to fight. Stomach-turning.
When Japan surrenders, the Russians arrive in Northern Korea, and they know just how to indoctrinate the terrified Koreans. Mother and Aunt Tiger are rightfully skeptical, but Sookan reacts positively to the friendly Russians with their festivities, songs, and huge meals.
Not until she experiences the daily labor of a proletariat does Sookan realize that her country has traded one captor for another. Her family learns of the 38th Parallel too late. If they are to plan an escape to the South, they will need to be extra careful.
The last third of the book chronicles how the family faces the decisions about whether or not to try to flee. The resolution gives a solid account of what happens to every character, a decision by the author that would endear her to middle school students who are not fond of ambiguous endings. While there are numerous impossible goodbyes in this story, the overall message about the perseverance of the human spirit is worthwhile and uplifting.