Thursday 14 March 2013

When my name was Keoko

When my name was Keoko by Linda Sue Park (University of Queensland Press)
PB RRP $16.95
ISBN 9 780702 249 747
Reviewed by Jo Antareau

Imagine living in a country that has been invaded by, then taken over by another. All of a sudden, you are no longer allowed to speak your language, tell stories passed down through generations, or even use the name you were born with.  Years before Gangnam Style and K-pop, this was Korea’s reality. A country occupied by the Japanese and its people forced to do whatever Japanese invaders told them to.

Written for children over 9 years, this story is based on events that the author’s parents lived through.  Both sad and funny, Linda Sue Park tells the story of Kim Sun-hee, a girl who never forgot her name even when forced to take on a Japanese name, Keoko. Park details the everyday outrages that were perpetrated on ordinary people, such as when Sun-hee’s brother Tae-yul had to give up the bicycle he painstakingly rebuilt because a Japanese soldier took a fancy to it.

The tone of the novel changes half way, as World War two commences. Koreans were expected to support Japan’s war effort by giving up their valuable possessions. Then Sun-hee’s beloved uncle disappears and although the family suspect he has joined the resistance movement, they have no way of knowing whether he is still alive.

With food and goods scarce, the families of Koreans who enlist with the Japanese army are rewarded with larger rations, older brother Tae-yul (who dreamed of being a pilot) joins up, to the outrage of the family. However Sun-hee never loses faith in him, believing he had a plan to sabotage any mission he took part in. Written in alternating viewpoints, tension mounts as Park drops hints about what Tae-yul feels he must do, and the final twist caught me by surprise.

I found this story well written and engrossing to read. American author, Linda Sue Park won the Newbery prize with her previous novel, A Single Shard.

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