Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Dignity in the Face of Tragedy ; A Korean Mother's Quiet Desperation in Giving Up Her Children

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Dignity in the Face of Tragedy ; A Korean Mother's Quiet Desperation in Giving Up Her Children

Article excerpt

THE LUCKY GOURD SHOP By Joanna Catherine Scott MacMurray & Beck 290 pp., $25

Perhaps you are the sort of person who likes to use the summer months to catch up on Proust or tackle the latest tome on Western civilization, but for me, there are really only two types of books suited to summertime. On the one hand, plot-driven novels - mysteries, say - that are fun, easy to read, and can be devoured in a day. The other, however, are those rare, exquisitely written novels that offer a glimpse into a completely different world, without asking the reader to do anything but marvel - the simpler, and shorter, the better. Joanna C. Scott's "The Lucky Gourd Shop" falls perfectly into the latter category.

The book begins with a chapter that seems semi-autobiographical: An American mother sits at the kitchen table with her three adopted children from South Korea, who are searching for information about their familial history (Scott dedicates the book to her own children and "their birth mother"). An eagerly awaited letter tells them nothing, and in place of a complete family tree they have only the oldest boy's "twigs and sticks of memory," which the mother, a writer, jots down. The story that follows this introductory chapter is their lost history - or the mother's re-creation of it, an elaborate myth woven in tribute to her children.

What is in many ways a brutal tale of poverty and despair becomes beautiful and moving through Scott's poetic language and eye for detail. The heroine is Mi Sook, the children's mother. Uneducated and nave, an orphan herself, she works in a coffee shop in Seoul, suffering through one unhappy marriage and several unrequited loves before eventually losing her children. Her repeated efforts to assert her independence are thwarted by the culture's repressive attitudes toward women as well as by the limitations of poverty. Her husband, Kun Soo, wants only sons, and Mi Sook speculates that she herself was abandoned for the same reason.

This sense of larger forces conspiring against Mi Sook evokes other tragic literary women like Anna Karenina or Sister Carrie (Mi Sook's nickname is in fact "little sister"). …

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