The Island of Sea Women

The Island of Sea Women

by Lisa See

Overview: Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls living on the Korean island of Jeju, are best friends that come from very different backgrounds. When they are old enough, they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective, led by Young-sook’s mother. As the girls take up their positions as baby divers, they know they are beginning a life of excitement and responsibility but also danger.

Despite their love for each other, Mi-ja and Young-sook’s differences are impossible to ignore. The Island of Sea Women is an epoch set over many decades, beginning during a period of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s, followed by World War II, the Korean War and its aftermath, through the era of cell phones and wet suits for the women divers. Throughout this time, the residents of Jeju find themselves caught between warring empires. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, and she will forever be marked by this association. Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers in their village. Little do the two friends know that after surviving hundreds of dives and developing the closest of bonds, forces outside their control will push their friendship to the breaking point.

This beautiful, thoughtful novel illuminates a world turned upside down, one where the women are in charge, engaging in dangerous physical work, and the men take care of the children. A classic Lisa See story—one of women’s friendships and the larger forces that shape them—The Island of Sea Women introduces readers to the fierce and unforgettable female divers of Jeju Island and the dramatic history that shaped their lives.

Debbie Weiss (05/11/19): All of Lisa See's books are well researched and dig deep into relationships between friends and family members. The Island of Sea Women is no exception. On the friendship level -- the friendship between Mi-ja and Young-sook is a relationship that only the luckiest of us can say we experienced as children. To have that one unique friend that we can reveal ourselves to is truly a gift. On the family level -- we see the incredible love between mother and daughter throughout the book, between many mothers and daughters who are part of the "sea women."

The book informs us about the island of Jeju and its matriarchal society where the women support the family by diving into the sea and obtaining all forms of aquatic animals for food. The men care for the children and mind the house. Being historical fiction, these women really did exist, amazing scientists with their ability to stay under water for long periods of time in incredibly cold weather. Was it a genetic trait that allowed them to do this? Scientists actually did study this question.

Spanning many decades, we see how relationships change due to circumstances beyond one's control. This is an engrossing read and I think it would be enjoyed by other readers.
Rating: *****

Deanna Boe (05/11/19): The Island of the Sea is really an amazing story. It is especially true for me, since I lived in Korea for six years and never learned anything about the history of this island, Jeju, just off its coast nor the people who lived there. The women, in particular, are what make this story fascinating.

This is a novel, but it is based on true facts. Who are these “sea women?” At an early age these women are trained to dive into the sea to retrieve all the various creatures that are necessary for their survival, i.e. octopus, abalone, shrimp and various sea urchins. They learn to hold their breath to dive deep into the water for extremely long lengths of time. Not only that, they are wearing what could basically be described as cotton underclothing diving into the coldest of water year round. Interestingly enough, they dive right up until they give birth to their babies. What makes these women and their culture even more unique is the fact they support their families and it is their husbands who care for their children and cook the evening meal. Scientists have studied these women to try and understand how they were able to achieve what they did in these cold waters for the length of time they managed to stay under the water. This quote best describes these women’s way of life: “Every woman who goes into the sea carries a coffin on her back. In this world, in the undersea world, we tow the burdens of this hard life.”

This story is told through one woman’s narrative, about her life, her family, and her friendship with one other woman and because of this it jumps back and forth from the present to previous years, but at least that storyline is taken in order. We learn of their culture, their families’ history, war, and poverty. But, what was the most interesting to me was what happened to their lives while the Japanese took over Korea and their island, and after they left. I was shocked to read about our role (or lack of it) when the island had their own type of “civil war” and the American military stationed there did nothing to stop the bloodshed and atrocities. They do not know the exact number of people who were murdered in the late forties and early fifties on the island of Jeju but it is put somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000 on this island alone. This was a shocking statistic I knew nothing about, even after living in Korea. The Korean government insisted well past the late 1980’s that no proof existed that anything had happened on Jeju, so perhaps this is why I never learned of any of this. Ironically today, it is now called the “Island of World Peace.”

Another quote that caught my attention: was the war on Jeju “America’s first Vietnam? Or was it a fight for people who craved reunification of north and south and wanted to have a say in what happened to our country, without interference or influence from a foreign power?” Obviously that is a question we cannot answer.
Rating: *****

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