As a member of the Books Sandwiched In committee sponsored by the Friends of the Tulsa City-County Libraries, I read a number of books being considered for the review series. My go-to reading is fiction, but I do venture out into other areas, especially for the Books Sandwiched In committee. This summer, in the nonfiction category, I have read Educated by Tara Westover, Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things by Amy Dickinson, and Nomadland by Jessica Bruder. See the Book Whisperer’s reviews on all of them.
The fiction nominees I have read include the following: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, Goodbye Picadilly: War at Home, 1914 by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, Death in the Stacks by Jenn McKinlay, and Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Another nominee is the work of Sue Grafton, the Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Mysteries. I have not read the entire series, but I have read through S.
Being a member of the Books Sandwiched In committee causes me to stretch in my reading habits. I admit that I did not tackle several of the nominated books because I was not interested or they were hard to get from the library. Some of the books on the list that I did not read are quite interesting to me given the time and access: Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, and 4th and Boston: Heart of the Magic Empire by Douglas Miller and Steve Gerkin.
For this review, my focus will be Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. The book chronicles the lives of poor Koreans living in Japan where they are considered visitors, non-citizens, regardless of whether they immigrated or were born in Japan.
Pachinko begins in the early 1900s in Korea, though the main characters soon move to Japan, and takes readers into 1989 still in Japan. Sunja, the beloved daughter and only child of a fisherman in Korea, is a shy sixteen-year-old. Her father has died, leaving Sunja and Yangjin, her mother, to survive on their own. The two of them run a boarding house near the sea.
One evening, Sunja returns home from marketing only to be accosted by several young Japanese thugs who undoubtedly will rape and beat her since she is alone and in an isolated spot. Koh Hansu, a fish broker happens to be walking along the area and sees the young men harassing Sunja, so he steps in to rescue her. He scatters the men and warns Sunja “to be careful not to travel alone or ever be out at night. If you go to the market by yourself, you must stay on the paths. Always in public view. They are looking for girls now.”
Sunja does not understand what Hansu means, but he goes on to tell her that someone who looks safe may offer her a job in China or Japan, but she must be careful. The person means only harm. Sunja continues to be puzzled because she has no intention of leaving her mother. Of course, Hansu means that an evil person may offer her a job making what to her would be a great deal of money. In reality, the job would be prostitution and she would be badly used, abused, and thrown away.
Hansu lulls readers into seeing him as a kind, somewhat older man who has protected Sunja and offered her good advice. He contrives to see her again and persuades her to meet him. For the first few times, he is content to talk with her and admire her for her youth and quiet beauty even though she is not traditionally beautiful, perhaps.
Then Hansu’s desires cause him to lead Sunju astray. Sunju, naïve, thinks he will marry her, especially when she tells him she is pregnant. That’s when he reveals that he is married in Japan and has three daughters. Still, Hansu says he will buy a house for Sunju and will take care of her and the child. Sunju is horrified and tells Hansu she will never see him again.
Obviously, Sunju must tell her mother about the pregnancy before too long. Baek Ksak is a lodger who has been staying at the boarding house. He arrived very ill with tuberculous. Sunju and her mother have nursed him and he has regained his health although he remains thin and weak. Baek is a missionary on his way to Japan to live with his brother and beautiful sister-in-law where he will be a minister in a Presbyterian church.
When Baek learns of Sunju’s dilemma, he decides that he will marry her in order to give the baby a name and that he will be the baby’s father. He realizes that Sunju someone has taken advantage of her naivete. Sunju and her mother agree to the marriage.
Yangjin knows the marriage means she will lose her only daughter, but she also recognizes that the marriage will save Sunju and the child. Sunju and Baek marry and leave for Japan where they live in a tiny shack in an area with other Korean immigrants in Osaka. The interior of their home is clean and better kept than most of the other houses. Yoseb and Kyunghee own their home, but they are careful not to act as if they are homeowners. Most of their neighbors rent their shacks and often they live with livestock in the house with the people.
Yoseb, Baek’s older brother, welcome Baek and Sunju. Sunju is eager to be helpful to her sister-in-law. Yoseb and Kyunghee have no children of their own. Kyunghee especially looks forward to becoming an aunt and helping to care for the child. She quickly calls Sunju “sister” and the two women share the household duties.
Pachinko is a sweeping story. Because of the length of the book, Lee has had the opportunity to develop each character fully. Sunju and Kyunghee work tirelessly to earn a little money to help the family get by. Yoseb is well-liked at his job and does the work well; because he is Korean, though, he receives less than if he were Japanese despite his hard work and talents.
Baek and Sunju have son and six years later another son. Baek earns a little money from the church, but he is arrested for being a Christian and kept in jail for two years. When he is near death, he is thrown out of the jail and sent home.
Sunju and Kyunghee make kimchi to sell from a cart; they take turns caring for the children. One day Kim Changho, a restaurant manager, approaches the women and offers to buy all the kimchi they can make. He wants them to work in his restaurant. At first, they are reluctant because they want to make the kimchi at home and deliver it to him. However, he says they must make it in the restaurant and the salary he offers the two of them is too great to ignore.
The story is full of turns, some of which readers will expect, perhaps. Others come as surprises. The little family prospers despite losing Baek. WWII begins and Hansu reappears. He tells Sunju the family must leave for a farm outside of town. He has arranged for the women to work and for Yoseb to go to Hiroshima to work as a foreman.
The family survives the war although Yoseb is badly burned and will never be able to work again. Still, Sunju and Kyunghee and now Sunju’s mother who has come from Korea all work together to keep the family going.
Lee describes the difficulties of the family just trying to survive. They endure hardships, but their strength lies in their devotion to one another. Hansu does help them, surreptitiously, until Sunju discovers he has been behind some of their success.
Pachinko is Min Jin Lee’s second novel. Her first published book is Free Food for Millionaires. She has been featured on NPR’s Selected Shorts. In addition, she has written for a number of journals.