Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Seesaw Girl by Linda Sue Park

This debut novel in 1999 has all the elements that I've come to love when reading Linda Sue Park's books: engaging characters, well-crafted plot, and interesting subjects. This tale is set in ancient Korea during the 1600's where wealthy women and children were virtual prisoners of their home. They were not allowed to leave the Inner Court and spent much of their days doing laundry and embroidering. Plus, doing the laundry didn't mean just washing clothes and hanging them to dry. It meant ripping out pant seams and resewing the pants back together. This not only got the "dirt out of the pockets" but was a way of sanitizing them from harmful germs. For leisure, the women did embroidery on cloth, purses, and panels. Only men were educated and allowed to be artists or writers, while the women managed the households.

I would have died of boredom like 12-year-old Jade Blossom. Not to mention I can't sew. The only part I liked on the sewing machine was pushing the pedal to the floor. In boring home economics class I was making a book bag when I looked out the window and pushed my finger right under the needle. The sewing machine jammed, pinning my finger to the bottom metal plate. The janitor had to come and disassemble the machine while a classmate threw-up looking at it (she later became a nurse). It was pretty gross. Weird thing - it didn't hurt. AND AS USUAL, I digress with a story of mine. Sorry! Anyway, back to Jade. She tries to spice up her days by playing pranks on others with her best friend, Willow. When Willow gets married Jade not only loses a kindred spirit, she can never see her again. Jade makes a plan to see Willow with unexpected results.

Jade is a mischievous, good-hearted character who talks to her brother, Tiger Heart, to get information, since it is not respectful to ask parents questions. Tiger is being groomed by Jade's father to be a scholar like himself who will advise the King in the future. While Tiger can be annoyed with Jade he comes across as tolerant and kind. He brings her sweets from the market and shares news with her. Willow seems somewhat immature for a 27 year old but living in a court doing laundry and embroidering but it is understandable given her lack of education and contact with the outside world. I did wonder how the women were trained at managing households. There are glimpses of it with the mother but I would have liked to see some of Willow's training at household management. Jade mentions some of the things Willow did before leaving, but not many details are given.

To recreate 17th century Korea in a story would be difficult and Linda Sue Park's bibliography shows the extensive research she did. The story of the westerners who were shipwrecked and taken to the King is based on a true story and I liked how it was intertwined with Jade's family and her conversation with her dad. Jade's attempt to see Willow causes a loyal servant to lose his job and when she takes responsibility her father says, "...the path to wisdom lies not in certainty, but in trying to understand." He uses these same words in his speech to the King about a dispute the council is having as to whether the captured westerners should be killed or freed.

Jade's mother indulges her and I wondered if it was because she understood how smothered Jade felt by their way of life or if she wanted to enjoy Jade to the fullest since she wouldn't see her ever again after marriage. Perhaps it was both. When Jade switches to painting which is forbidden by girls, I wondered what path this new secret rebellion would lead to. The ending seemed abrupt because that question wasn't answered. I thought perhaps Tiger Heart was going to help Jade with her painting or give tips. Perhaps he'd like a piece of her work and pass it on as his own to the Schoolmaster. Wouldn't it be ironic if it was hailed as great work, put on display, and then Jade would have to keep secretly painting for Tiger? Then she'd be able to be creative in a very uncreative and stifling position. Of course, then she'd get married and that would be the end of that. Maybe the ending is just right. You decide.

Irony abounds that this girl who is so rich in material goods is so poor in freedoms with a yearning for adventure and education in politics, arts, and more. Add to that theme her curious, spunky, and courageous attitude and it is easy to root for this likable protagonist. I have read some adult books like this story that capture the unhappiness of women in this type of setting with a nasty pecking order, but this tale caters more to the young reader and is not ugly at all. Jade's mom is a good woman who is sad at times but makes the best out of each day and the house seems full of joy. Jade, while impetuous and ignorant of consequences, is willing to take responsibility when she causes harm to another person. I did find it sad how Jade invents a way to espy the mountains outside her court. While Jade doesn't feel sorry for herself, I felt downcast by her predictable future. For all she was missing. For not having the freedom to live like she wants. For not being able to get an education. For being an oppressed minority. A wonderful story.

Reading Level 5.0
3 out of 5 Smileys

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