Jan 17, 12
Read in January, 2012
[NOTE: Some spoilers ahead!]
Year of Impossible Goodbyes takes place over a period of approximately 1-2 years, chronicling the lives of 10-year-old Sookan and her family in North Korea. During the oppressive Japanese occupation of Korea, Sookan and her family are not allowed to speak their own language or assert their own culture, and they are essentially slaves to the domineering Captain Narita. When the Japanese lose World War II and pull out of Korea, Sookan and her family rejoice in the new life they have been granted. However, their peace and prosperity is short-lived; for Russian soldiers soon begin to pour into Korea, and Sookan and her family must make a daring escape across the border to American-occupied South Korea.
This book's voice and style are very readable, employing a simple but often poetic language. In terms of reading level and content, I would place this book alongside The Devil's Arithmetic; it talks about the atrocities the Japanese and Russians committed in Korea without being too graphic, and though it is told from a child's perspective, it is done so with overtones of adult voice and wisdom. I believe the novel is actually based upon the experiences of its author, Sook Nyul Choi, who was born in North Korea. I would recommend the book for any readers ages 12 and up. (Note: As in The Devil's Arithmetic, there are references to some pretty scary stuff committed by the "bad guys"--murder, torture, and the forced prostitution of "spirit girls" to Japanese soldiers, in this case--but just as in The Devil's Arithmetic, these topics are mentioned from a child's perspective and are not dwelt upon. I doubt young readers will understand the part about "spirit girls" any more than the protagonist Sookan does.)
I had never known previously about the Japanese and Soviet occupation of Korea, and this book was a fascinating and accessible way to learn more about Korean culture and history. It did a wonderful job in bridging the gap between cultures and time periods; by the end of the book, I really identified with Sookan and her family, and I felt a greater sense of closeness and empathy for them as well as the poor people living in North Korea right now. This book made the world a little bigger for me, and I'd recommend it to anyone.