Blossoms and Bayonets by Jana McBurney-Lin and Hi-Dong Chai

 

Based on the true story of co-author Hi-Dong Chai, Blossoms and Bayonets is the fictional coming-of-age story of 15-year-old He-Seung, the middle child in a Korean Christian family in 1942. After his father’s arrest, He-Seung must leave his mother and baby brother behind as his family and country are torn apart.

Told in alternating first-person perspectives, this novel gives a personal account of Japan’s occupation of Korea, which involved all the trademark assimilation tactics of colonization: taking away the native language, religion, even the local flora. Anything Koreans identified with was stripped away, declared illegal, and replaced with the Japanese equivalent. Actual quotes from Japanese propaganda start each section, which makes for a haunting blend of history and fiction.

I really wanted to love this book, but sadly, it didn’t click with me. The narrative prevented me from connecting with the characters; strange, because I normally love books written in first-person and with changing points of view, as was the case here. Instead, the dialogue (both inner and outer) felt awkward and artificial. And for some reason, I couldn’t get past that. (One example: there were only so many times I could stomach Mother always and only referring to her husband as “my dear.”) This was incredibly disappointing, because I was so interested in this story! I wanted it to envelop me, and honestly, I believe that that would have been the case had the novel been written in third person. I was frustrated that this single aspect bothered me enough that I wasn’t able to make myself push through to the end; I gave up about 1/3 of the way in.

That being said, I can’t help but wonder if my annoyance with something that feels seemingly minor had to do with timing, especially since I’d just finished two back-to-back phenomenal reads. The storyline and setting of Blossoms and Bayonets are quite wonderful, and aside from the dialogue, the characters themselves still felt very real to me. I would like to give this book another try in the future.

Other readers have raved about Blossoms and Bayonets, so be sure to check out their reviews on Goodreads for different perspectives.