When My Name Was Keoko

March 29, 2009
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In When My Name Was Keoko, Linda Sue Park takes her audience on a journey to Korea as she tells the story of the Kim family, a Korean family struggling under Japanese rule in the 1940s. I knew nothing of this period in time before I read this book, but through the alternating perspectives of the young daughter, Sun-hee, and her older brother, Tae-yul, I was informed about the problems and difficulties that the children had experienced during that painful period in history. Even though this book aims to teach students about the tragic events that occurred during that time, it still managed to capture and hold my undivided attention.

In 1910, the Japanese officially annexed Korea. The time period between then until 1945 was called the “Japanese Imperial Period”. Park based her book off of a true story—the stories her parents had told her about their own lives and first-hand experiences. Her mother and father were the inspirations for Sun-hee and Tae-yul respectively. When the Japanese forced the Koreans to adapt traditional Japanese names, Sun-hee became “Keoko Kaneyama”, and Tae-yul became “Nobuo Kaneyama”. Keoko and Nobuo were Park's parents' Japanese names.

While the Japanese Imperial Period caused hatred to grow between Korea and Japan, it brought the Kim family closer together. They learned to love and protect each other in times of trouble, like when Japan went to war with America, a country that was trying to free the Koreans. Sun-hee's and Tae-yul's uncle gave them hope that Korea really would be free one day, hope that they believed in. “There will come a time,” he had said. Those words echoed in Sun-hee's head the day Uncle had to run away and hide because he had been caught writing a resistance newspaper for Korea. Park illustrates the pain that was felt by the whole family through the characters' thoughts. Her powerful voice extends that feeling to the reach of the reader so that he or she can fully comprehend the difficulty of this situation.

As the war continued, Sun-hee attended school everyday but did nothing there but prepare for an enemy invasion. Tae-yul chose to volunteer to help build an airstrip at the edge of their town, so he did not attend school. In 1945, the police asked Tae-yul to help them find his Uncle, pretending that they wouldn't harm him. Tae-yul lied quickly and said that he had already volunteered to be a soldier in the war, and he would not be present to go on such a mission. He then registered his name in the army enlistment office.

Park's vivid descriptions of Tae-yul's excruciating training are so graphic as to making the reader cringe in pain while picturing the amount of blood and bruises these recruits were encountering. The story lightens when Tae-yul learns how to fly a plane, which has always been his dream. Later, he volunteered to fly a kamikaze mission—when Japanese pilots fly down onto American ships in planes loaded with bombs so they do maximum damage to the ships. Tae-yul knew he was going to die, but he wanted to show the Japanese that Koreans were not cowards. He also knew that going on such a mission would mean helping the Japanese defeat the Americans, which was something that he prohibited himself to do. He would fly down and aim for nothing but the sea, killing himself, but leaving the Americans unscathed.

In the end, readers will be relieved to know that Tae-yul's kamikaze mission never took place because the sky was too cloudy that day. Later, Japan had surrendered to the Americans and Korea was finally free, just like Uncle had said it would be one day. Tae-yul returned home two months later to find that his family missed him dearly and that his uncle was still away. Nonetheless, Korea was a free country where Koreans could use their real names again and could speak their own language again.

I do not often come across books that I cannot stop reading, but When My Name Was Keoko was one of those rare novels. Linda Sue Park made me believe in her words. She informed and fascinated at the same time—a goal not achieved by many historical fiction authors. This book didn't only let readers know about the Japanese Imperial Period, but it also let readers know that there is such thing as hope in this world. The way the Japanese were ruling the Koreans made it seem like they had complete control over Korea. Even so, the Kim family still remained obstinate about Korea becoming a free country again, which eventually paid off when this dream finally came true.

Though Park did not provide certain essential details of the Japanese-American war, she mentioned a Japanese victory here, a defeat there. She subtly conveys to the reader that Sun-hee and Tae-yul are not native English speakers by including some broken but understandable English. Park carefully breaks the rules of standard English and loves to use fragments and rhetorical questions to build suspense—she loves to get her audience thinking.

Overall, When My Name Was Keoko is an inspirational novel that I would recommend to anyone interested in reading a suspenseful book with a great storyline. It teachers the reader a lesson of overcoming struggle, never giving up, and hoping.





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