White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht, (Published January 30, 2018 by G.P. Putnam's Sons) is a devasting look at ‘comfort women' or sexual slaves that the Japanese soldiers often kidnapped, set up in brothels and then raped continually during World War II.
This story focuses on Hana, a 16-year-old Korean haenyeo or freediver, her warm happy family and the love for her little sister and mother. Hana grew up under Japanese occupation and was constantly reminded to take care of her sister, 9-year-old Emi. It is when she sees a Japanese soldier walking toward Emi on the beach that Hana swims quickly to shore. She leads him away from Emi. In return, she is taken to Manchuria and is forced into sexual slavery.
“The routine at the brothel is simple. Rise, wash, eat, then wait in the room for the soldiers to arrive. When the hour grows late, usually after nine o’clock at night, the remaining men will be sent home. Then she washes herself and the used condoms, disinfects and dresses her wounds if she accumulates any that day. They eat a meager meal then go to bed to start the day again. Ten hours a day, six days a week she ‘services’ soldiers. She is raped by twenty men a day. The seventh day is chore day.”
Bracht's description is brutal. But Hana teaches herself to escape the abuse using her mind, returning to memories of home and her connection to the sea. While this is a difficult piece of historical fiction to read, Hana reveals her strength and pride in her life as a haenyeo, like her mother and her grandmother and her grandmother before her.
“On Hana’s island, diving is women’s work. Their bodies suit the cold depths of the ocean better than men’s. They can hold their breath longer, swim deeper and keep their body temperature warmer, so for centuries, Jeju (Island) women have enjoyed a rare independence."
In case you are not familiar with the term free diver, it is someone who holds her breath while under water for minutes at a time. The day after I finished White Chrysanthemum, a short video called One Breath Around the World showed up in my social media feed. The astounding video was released February 1, 2019. It is an amazing look at the beauty of free diving. While it is very different from Hana’s diving…she was diving for food for her family and to sell at the market… they are the opposite sides of the same coin.
Back to White Chrysanthemum: it is divided into two stories: Hana’s in 1943 and her sister Emi’s in 2011. The language is so real you can feel Hana's anger at the soldiers, her overwhelming acceptance of saving her little sister at her own expense, and her aching desire to dive in her home waters.
Bracht is an imaginative and eloquent writer that understands the agony and the courage of this teenager. Her description of Hana's connection and love of the sea is among the best I have come across. If you haven't read this book, I recommend that you do.