In 1943, the Japanese tear young Ja-hee and her sister from their peaceful family farm to be comfort women for the Imperial Army. Before they leave home, their mother gives them a magnificent antique comb with an ivory inlay of a two-headed dragon, saying it will protect them. The sisters suffer terribly at the hands of the Japanese, and by the end of the war, Ja-hee must flee while her sister lies dying. Ja-hee keeps her time as a comfort woman a secret while she struggles to rebuild her life. She meets a man in North Korea who shows her what true love is. But the communists take him away in the middle of the night, and she escapes to the South. There, she finally finds success as the country rebuilds after the Korean War. However when her terrible secret is revealed, she’s thrown into poverty. In the depths of despair, she’s tempted to sell the comb with the two-headed dragon that she believes has no magic for her. Then one day she discovers its true meaning and her surprising heredity. And now she must find the only person who can carry on the legacy of the two-headed dragon… someone she abandoned years ago.
Set within the tumultuous backdrop of 20th century Korea, Daughters of the Dragon by award-winning author William Andrews will make you cry and cheer for Ja-hee. And in the end, you’ll have a better understanding of the Land of the Morning Calm.
Daughters of the Dragon is inspired by The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini, Memiors of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, the books of Amy Tan and Lisa See. (Summary and image from goodreads.com. I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.)
My Review: Hannah has always been confident of who she is. She didn't care that she looked different from her parents, they loved her and so what? Life in America is just fine - until her mother dies. In her grief, she decides to travel to the land of her birth, Korea, with her father to find out anything she can of who she was. When the officials at the orphanage where she was placed inform her that her mother died in childbirth, she is approached by an older woman who presses a package into her hands, and in impeccable English, implores her to visit as soon as she can. Shocked, awed by the intricate dragon comb contained in the package, and curious beyond measure, Hannah enters the woman's apartment to hear her story of the comb and her connection to Hannah, and into a world she never imagined existed.
There are some books that suck you in from the first page and that demand a resting period once they are finished with you. Honestly, I was glad I read this in one massive chunk (the perks of a road trip) and was able to enjoy some beautiful Southwestern scenery as I digested and recovered from the book. don't get me wrong, Andrews is an astounding storyteller and this work is incredible. But the history of the Comfort Women (even the existence) was just a footnote in my AP World History class, I had no idea how devastating or how widespread the issue was.
This books is historical fiction, but Andrews has truly done an artistic job fleshing out not only the immediate damage that Ja-hee faced as a Comfort Woman, but the difficulties that her life faced for decades as a result. Her inadvertent inauguration into the Communist movement, her struggles as a gifted interpreter hardly able to find work, her struggle to make the story of the conscripted Comfort Women known and taken seriously, and her conflict with the government over that dragon comb captivated me. She is strong, and she is capable, and the horrors she faces time and again only temper her. There is even an historical context explanation about the struggles of the Korean women and the Japanese government over the issue.
I don't think I could recommend this book for everyone. The subject matter is hard. But it is also so swept under the rug that we are in danger of losing the reality of it for good.
My Rating: Four and a half stars
For the Sensitive Reader: Be warned. These poor young women (teenagers) are raped brutally, savagely, and repeatedly. There are also episodes of violence and some harsh language.