Blossoms and Bayonets by Hi Dong Chai and Janna Mc Burney-Lin

Blossoms and Bayonets is about the Japanese occupation of Korea during World War Two.  Korea was the first nation to fall victim to Japan’s imperial ambitions; the Japanese seized control of the country in 1910. The Japanese attempted to assimilate the Koreans to their culture, staffing the schools with Japanese sensei , indoctrinating Korean children into Shintoism and Emperor worship, and forbidding them to speak Korean at school. Symbolically they insisted that the Koreans plant cherry trees and dispense with their beloved Rose of Sharon.

The book is narrated by three different characters, each belonging to the family of a Christian minister. He-Seung, aged 15 when the book begins is a high school student. He is already politically conscious and detests the Japanese and their occupation.  The Japanese have just bombed Pearl Harbor, all-out war has started and the Japanese are recruiting in his classroom for their youth corps. He-Seung will be of age to join in a few months. He resolves not to go, and to try to persuade his best friend Gong-Tae not to join. He hopes that Gong-tae’s infatuation with the beautiful Myung-Hae will keep him close to home.

He Seung’s younger brother He-Dong is eight years old. He is very bright but physically weak. He-Seung considers him a spoiled brat and calls him “Bean Curd Boy.” He-Dong had been class monitor the year before, a prestigious position, but this year, on the first day of school, he is punished for speaking Korean to a classmate and the honor goes to someone else.

The third narrator is Uhmony, the boys’ mother. She is the devoted wife of a Christian minister, and the devoted mother of He-Seung, He-Dong, and an older son He-Chul who is away studying in Manchuria. As the minister’s wife other women in the congregation look to her for guidance. She is kind and loving while her husband, the minister, is strict and stern.

The Japanese want all Koreans to worship at the shrine of Shinto and they frown upon Christian worship. They force the Minister to close his church, but he continues to conduct services in their home. One day he is arrested and taken to prison. He-Seung and his friend Gong-Tae try to visit him and bring him food. They become acquainted with a Korea guard at the prison and one day the guard offers He-Seung a devil’s bargain. His father will be released from prison if he joins the youth corps. A dutiful son, He-Seung  does not hesitate to make the decision.

Blossoms and Bayonets is well-written and absorbing and the reader comes away with a sense of the history and culture of Korea and the tragedy that befell a nation crushed under the iron heel of a brutal occupying  power.  It is clear that the U.S. made its own devil’s bargain in 1945 when we gave the Soviet Union the permission to occupy the northern half of that country.  Brutal war followed with the loss of many Korean and American lives, and even today, the northern half of Korea is ruled by one of the most brutal and repressive governments on the planet.


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