Mary Lynn Bracht
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
CW: Physical and emotional abuse, graphic sexual violence.
What a rollercoaster. I thought I was angry at the end of When Women Were Dragons (Kelly Barnhill), but that seems cute now when White Chrysanthemum is making me want to scream and shoot somebody, preferably Corporal Morimoto. (We’ll get to the reasons I want to castrate a fictional soldier in a little bit, but right now I really just need to be angry.) Now that I think about it, this might actually have been the perfect book to read after I finished Defenestrate (Renée Branum), because Defenestrate made me feel nothing and White Chrysanthemum made me feel everything. It did give me weird Handmaid’s Tale dreams, but I suppose that’s not entirely surprising.
Ranging from the shores of South Korea to Manchuria to Mongolia, White Chrysanthemum follows two parallel stories. The first begins in 1943 with sixteen-year-old Hana Jang. She is the eldest daughter of a haenyeo, one of the famed female divers of Jeju Island, and accompanies her mother into the sea every day to harvest shellfish, seaweed, and more. Her nine-year-old sister Emiko (“Emi”) is too young to dive, but stays on the shore to guard their catch, knowing that she will become a haenyeo in her turn. Growing up under the regime of the Japanese empire, Hana and Emi learn early to avoid any conflict with the soldiers who patrol their island. They were given Japanese names and are fluent in Japanese, as the Korean language is forbidden, but, though they are careful not to cause trouble, their childhood is shadowed by the murders and abductions carried out by the soldiers. Still, their own family goes relatively untouched until the day the haenyeos’ beach is invaded by Corporal Morimoto, a Japanese soldier who doesn’t know the meaning of the word “stop.” Hana distracts him before he can find Emi, but loses her own chance to escape when he and two other soldiers abduct her in broad daylight. After dragging her through the local police station to register her as a “volunteer,” Morimoto takes her onto a ship with a number of other female captives, where he rapes her in advance of shipping her to a brothel in Manchuria.
This is exactly as bad as it sounds. Hana is renamed Sakura upon arrival, becoming the latest in a presumably long line of girls named Sakura, and assigned to a room, where she is raped and frequently beaten by twenty soldiers a day. She and the other women in the brothel are abused ten hours a day, six days a week, with one day off to tend to household chores and medical care every other week. Though she bonds slightly with Keiko, a former geisha who volunteered for the brothel without quite realizing what it would be like, Hana is wary of the other captives and doesn’t really make friends with any of them. To make matters worse, Morimoto arrives at the brothel after a period of absence and begins to visit Hana after hours, very much against regulation. When he asks her to run away with him, she instead escapes into the wilds of Manchuria, but he tracks her down easily and drags her to Mongolia, where he leaves her at a small settlement with a family he knows. The Mongolian family treats her kindly, and she even begins a cautious friendship with Altan, a young man about her age. Her peaceful interlude is shattered when Morimoto returns yet again, and, following another unsuccessful escape attempt, they are both captured by Soviet troops. After a brief stint with the Russians, Morimoto is brutally tortured for information, then forced to commit seppuku in front of Hana. Hana knows she will likely be killed as well and tells her story to two other abductees, giving them the photo Morimoto was keeping of her before her own interrogation. Before the Russians can kill her, however, Altan and his family arrive, and manage to barter for her life.
The second storyline takes place in 2011. Emi is now seventy-seven, living by herself in a shack on the beach where she still dives every day with the other surviving haenyeo. Unable to process the trauma of Hana’s abduction or the shame of her own survival, she has buried her memories of Hana deep, but regularly dreams of her. Though she is relatively fortunate, her own life has been far from easy. While she and her family had a vague sense of what might have happened to Hana, everything they knew was based on the rumors surrounding similar abductions, and they never got a definitive answer. They couldn’t even talk about the disappearance or about Hana herself for fear of reprisal; and even if they could, nobody would know anything anyway, except for the soldiers and the traitors who helped them. At fourteen Emi witnessed her father’s murder at the hands of the South Korean police during the Jeju Uprising, and spent several months hiding in a cave with her mother and a handful of others, slowly starving while they tried to escape the notice of the police. A cautious foray into the village ended with their arrest, and Emi was forced to marry policeman HyunMo Lee shortly afterwards. Her already fractious marriage lost any hope of improvement when HyunMo reported Emi’s mother to the government, leading to her execution by firing squad, and, though they remained married, their relationship was cold and hostile until the day HyunMo finally died.
In the present day, Emi has two adult children, Hyoung and Yoonhui, who have both left Jeju Island and now live in Seoul. Hyoung is married and has a twelve-year-old son, YoungSook, and YoonHui is in a serious relationship with Lane, an American woman. Neither Hyoung nor YoonHui knows anything of the abuses suffered by their mother, and they are completely unaware of Hana’s existence. They are dutiful in their care for their mother, but they are also somewhat confused: they were close to their father and never understood Emi’s anger towards him, nor her seeming lack of affection for them. Emi has spent nearly a lifetime trying to shield them from the darkest aspects of her life and marriage, but finally cracks when she attends a demonstration in front of the Japanese embassy and sees the newly sculpted Statue of Peace, a monument created to memorialize the women enslaved by the Japanese army. Following her second heart attack, she convinces her children to take her back to the statue, knowing that she has very little time to gain any sort of closure. Upon second viewing, she recognizes the statue definitively as Hana, whose likeness was used in its creation, and dies soon afterward, satisfied at having seen her sister one last time. After her death, YoonHui returns to Jeju Island to dive with the haenyeo in tribute to her mother. In a final scene, Hana is seen traveling with Altan and his family in the winter of 1943, freed from both Russians and Japanese, resigned to the knowledge that she can never return to Korea but eager to start a new life.
I know that ending is total fantasy. Bracht says so herself in an afterword, and I do not believe for a second that any comfort woman managed to escape captivity this way. Nevertheless, I am so grateful for it, because I really thought Hana was going to die in that Soviet camp. Before we got to the Soviet camp, I was convinced that Morimoto was going to beat her to death. I am so glad that neither of these things happened, though we sure got close. And ordinarily I would be unhappy with Hana for abandoning the other comfort women with so little compunction when they all helped her adjust as best they could, but I can’t hold that against her when I would want any one of those women to seize whatever chance they had to escape. It was a nice fantasy, but realistically Keiko’s desire for group survival had very little chance of success. All of the former Sakuras – I’m assuming there were more of them before Hana’s direct predecessor – are evidence enough of that. Obviously I wish Hana’s escape attempts had been more successful and that she and Emi had been able to meet again in real life, but that was out of both of their control and therefore cannot be blamed on any shortcomings they might have had, either as characters or as people. Really what I want is to hop into the story and run Morimoto over with a train after he drops Hana off with Altan’s family. It would sure fix a lot of her problems, because she has got 99 problems and Morimoto alone is about 98.
This brings me to the main reason I dropped a star, which is Morimoto. The fact of the abuse would not have been enough for the book to lose a star if Morimoto weren’t so persistent. He comes back so often that he loses his menace over time, even though he is objectively the biggest Bogeyman in Hana’s story. The first time he caught Hana mid-flight was terrifying, heart-pounding, enough to make me pray that Hana would fall into some kind of a ditch, someplace he either couldn’t follow her or couldn’t see her. When she looked back during her second escape attempt and saw him galloping after her, my honest-to-God gut reaction was “Fuck’s sake, of course he fucking is, you’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.” And maybe I shouldn’t be saying this because I know I am minimizing Hana’s trauma while watching from an extraordinarily safe distance, but Morimoto is so fucking annoying. Any way you look at it, his obsession with Hana isn’t about love. Like every other abusive relationship, it’s all about control. It’s about keeping her in his grasp and never letting her slip away and I get that, but he feels more like a caricature than a real person. He would have been more effective as a villain if his conversation were not limited to such gems as “Don’t you understand? I came back for you,” generally delivered while he’s either raping her or beating her senseless or doing some other disgusting thing that makes his inability to read Hana’s feelings genuinely bewildering. I honestly can’t tell if he’s just stupid, or if he’s so desperate to maintain his own fantasy that he’s managed to convince himself that Hana secretly loves him back. For what it’s worth, my money is on stupid.
While we’re at it, I don’t think we needed Morimoto’s tragic my-son-died-and-then-my-wife-hanged-herself sob story, which utterly failed to make me feel anything other than acute irritation. (This is the part where it’s lucky that Hana is not like me, because I would’ve asked him if he’d treated his wife the same way he was treating me, and I would’ve gotten my neck snapped in half.) Maybe it was an attempt to humanize him; maybe Bracht felt like he needed to explain himself; maybe his family never existed and it was all just another sick attempt to control Hana. The thing is, I don’t care why he’s obsessed with her. The reasons don’t matter when the result is so horrific. Rapists are nothing new, and his motives are the type that can be easily filled in by the audience. I suppose you could argue that Hana deserved to know why this asshole kept coming back to abuse her again and again, which she certainly did, but his little pity party piled on top of my existing irritation and inflamed it, and long story short this prick needed to die a lot sooner than he did. And then his death wasn’t even wholly satisfying, because Hana was so horrified by its sheer brutality that she took no comfort from knowing he was dead. Yes, yes, humanity, etc. Hana is a far better woman than I am, but I think she deserved at least a little satisfaction at the end.
While my overall feeling with this book is irritated stress, I have to admit that I am also relieved – relieved that it’s over, to be sure, but also relieved that Hana and Emi both found their way to a kind of peace while their biggest abusers got exactly the painful, humiliating deaths they deserved. I like to think that they reunite in the afterlife, trade stories and compare notes and point out their respective children and grandchildren to each other, assuming Hana had any. I want them both to know a world with no pain or fear or anger or regret. I wish the same for their parents and their friends, all of the women from Hana’s brothel and every person who ever signed the Japanese army’s paperwork at gunpoint, all the families who were left to spend the rest of their lives wondering what became of their loved ones, the children who grew up under the weight of their parents’ grief. For the Morimotos of the world I wish nothing but torment because I am not a forgiving person, and, if I’m being perfectly honest, I could watch him die all day.