Almost every country has a hidden war secret. From failed plans to unexpected atrocities, there are countless war crimes still up for debate today, the victims of which continue to seek justice from the crimes they have been subject to. When it comes to horrible war crimes, Japan is no white knight. You’ve no doubt heard of the Nanking Massacre, otherwise known as the Rape of Nanking, wherein countless residents of Nanjing, China were murdered and raped by Japanese troops during the second Sino-Japanese War. If you thought that was bad, however, you are in for much worse, as Mary Lynn Bracht tells the heartbreaking story of thousands of “comfort women” in her debut novel, White Chrysanthemum.
Rape is not a new war story and Japan is not the first country to commit atrocious acts against women and children, but the plight of Korean women during Japan’s occupation of Korea in World War II will make you question everything you know about Japan, while breaking your heart. Through the story of one brave teenager, Mary Lynn Bracht conveys the shattering experience of being taken from your home and forced to serve as a sex slave against your will. She touches on the importance of family while revealing one of the most devastating war stories in history in excruciating detail. Despite the pain that White Chrysanthemum brings, it’s a story that deserves to be told, as it is an important part of history that is often brushed aside, not only by Japan, but by the world at large.
This is an ARC review of Mary Lynn Bracht’s White Chrysanthemum, which releases January 30, 2018.
*Special thanks to Puntam for allowing us to read and review ahead of publication.
This review contains quotes and spoilers from the book.
At the start of the novel, Mary Lynn Bracht takes us back to war torn Korea. On Jeju Island, a small area of Korea that has suffered the least from Japanese occupation, we meet Hana, a sixteen year old haenyeo, or woman of the sea. Hana experiences a freedom that many other women do not – she is able to provide for herself. She does not have to rely on a man to survive, as she is a diver that knows how to scavenge the seas for sustenance. Her profession allows her to assist in supporting her family. It also allows her to enter the marketplace, where she is able to sell her wares and interact with other members of the island. Having lived under Japanese occupation her whole life, she is instructed to avoid Japanese soldiers at all costs. Hana knows that those who are taken by Japanese soldiers never return, but she isn’t sure why.
Bracht sets the scene beautifully, despite the oppression depicted within. Although Hana is a daughter of the sea, she suffers under Japanese occupation, where Korean traditions, religion, and even language have been prohibited. She must be mindful of every move, which includes only speaking in her native language in the privacy of her own home. Instead of embracing her own history, she is educated in Japanese history and instructed to speak in Japanese. If she hadn’t had a name that was both Japanese and Korean, she would be forced to take a Japanese name as well.
Like so many Koreans forced to assimilate, SangSoo’s family speaks Korean in the privacy of their home, only speaking Japanese in public. Hana always thought she was lucky to have been named by a clever mother. In Korean, hana means “one”, or in her case “firstborn”, but in Japanese hana also means “flower”. So Hana never has to change her name, in public or in private.
– Excerpt from Mary Lynn Bracht’s White Chrysanthemum
Although Bracht skillfully sets the tone of the novel to be oppressive, forcing the reader to follow Hana on her journey, she incorporates elements of Korean culture that are beautiful. From the forbidden ritual that marks Hana’s destiny as a daughter of the sea, along with its accompanying blessing, to the passing on of Korean language, folklore and music in the home, Bracht incorporates culture in a breathtaking way, allowing readers to explore and understand wartime Korea.
As if the ban on Korean language and culture wasn’t bad enough, Bracht details the heartbreaking process during which countless women lost their lives. Kidnapped, transported and sexually abused, many Korean girls and women were taken during World War II to be used as comfort women, unbeknownst to them. Through Hana, the reader experiences the gruesome details first hand after she offers herself to a Japanese solider named Morimoto in a valiant effort to protect her younger sister, Emi. Knowing full well that she has lost her life, Hana is taken by Morimoto, who treats her as if she is an object to be used and abused, where Bracht reveals the true horrors that so called comfort women faced while in captivity.
Even though Hana is prepared to suffer the worst, having vowed to protect her younger sister at all costs, she is not prepared for the sexual slavery that she is subject to. Hana is forced to wear a plain uniform and packed into a train with hundreds of other girls and women, who have no idea where they are headed. Having been singled out by Morimoto as a favorite for her beauty, she is called into his cabin on the train and raped, beaten and told that she is an object. She is given very little food, no access to a bathroom, and is kept in the dark about where she is headed. On the journey, she watches a young girl that she tried to protect die. She is transported in silence, where she is dropped off at a brothel to serve as a comfort woman to the forces of the Japanese army who need release in order to better serve the Emperor of Japan.
At the brothel, Hana is given a new name and a new identity. She is now an object and she is treated as such. Daily she is subject to rape by numerous men. At night she is expected to clean herself properly. In the mornings and on weekends, she is expected to do chores with the other women. If she refuses, she is beaten or placed into solitary confinement.
She holds up a hand mirror that fits into her palm, and Hana can’t help but look at her reflection. The ends of her hair grace the soft line of her jaw, but that isn’t what catches her attention. A purple bruise has sprouted around her right eye, and a red mark in the shape of a heart stains her left cheek. Her bottom lip is cut and swollen, and her neck is rubbed raw from hands and forearms that choked her into submission. So this is what her pain looks like to others. She turns away from her reflection. It is no longer hers; it is now the broken image of a girl called Sakura.
– Excerpt from Mary Lynn Bracht’s White Chrysanthemum
Bracht does not cut corners and provides every shattering detail, breaking the reader along with Hana. Her pain is biting and poignant, but Hana powers through. Sheer force of will and her training as a haenyeo prepare her for the worst and push her to carry on. Pleasant memories of home and the sister she saved are a constant reminder that her plight is bearable – she will survive if only to see them again one day. Despite the crushing sadness that colors the bitter pages of White Chrysanthemum, there is an incredible sense of hope. Hana’s power and strength are astounding, and Bracht demonstrates the power that love and family hold over us.
Much like The Women in the Castle and The Lost Letter, White Chrysanthemum is written from dual perspectives. Bracht pulls of this feat seamlessly, offering alternating points of view from Hana and Emi, past and present. While Hana is battered by countless Japanese soldiers, Emi struggles to hold on to the hope that her long lost sister is still alive. She is plagued by nightmares and is determined to see the girl who sacrificed herself for her once more, even though she is now an old woman who is deteriorating in health.
If you thought Hana’s story was the only one laced with pain, you will be surprised to learn that Bracht uses the opportunity to introduce the shame, guilt, and pain experienced by the survivors, those who made it through World War II and lived through the Korean War, where they were subject to further crimes. Emi recounts her experiences, wherein readers learn more unknown facts about Korean history including violent murders, forced marriages and fear of fellow countrymen under the onset of Communism.
Despite the gruesome level of detail packed into the pages of White Chrysanthemum, Mary Lynn Bracht’s debut novel is a must read that explores a history that is often glanced over and ignored. Despite focusing my education on East Asian Studies and taking countless history classes on China, Korea, and Japan, I found myself astounded by the events that took place during the occupation of Korea, as the time period was only mentioned in passing. Bracht confirmed what I had only suspected – there is so much that we don’t know about the world. Even when we dedicate our time to one specific area of study, so much is left out. Although White Chrysanthemum is a work of historical fiction, it is very much based in fact – up to 200,000 women were forced to become comfort women during Japan’s occupation of Korea.
While White Chrysanthemum is not for the faint of heart, it is a shattering story that needs to be told. Inside you will learn about the horrors of war and the heartbreaking experiences of women, but you will also uncover hidden gems about Korean history from traditions, to mannerisms and language lessons. Through impeccable language, fast pacing and unforgettable characters, Mary Lynn Bracht’s debut will stick with you and make you long for her next work of historical fiction.