Monday, February 18, 2013

When My Name was Keoko by Linda Sue Park

Writing reviews is like skipping a flat stone across a lake. At least for me. Sometimes the rock whirls like a Frisbee and I'm excitedly counting out loud each skip along the surface. Other times it hits the water with a thunk and sinks immediately with me quickly releasing another one to cover up my fuddy-duddy toss. Writing can be like that for some authors. A hit or miss. Then there are others who are so good at their craft they just fling rocks like Frisbees in rapid succession. I would put Linda Sue Park in the latter category. Her books are terrific.

Ten-year-old Sun-hee lives with her parents and brother in Korea during World War II with the Japanese occupying their land. The Koreans cannot speak their language, hold positions of power, grow the national tree in their yards, fly the Korean flag, etc. As World War II progresses, more is taken from the Koreans and they can no longer get rice or meat. Sun-hee's brother joins the war knowing the family will get more food, but an unexpected turn puts his life more in peril than being directly in battle.

Linda Sue Park alternates between two main characters points of view: Sun-hee uses first person past tense, while her brother, Tae-yul, uses first person present tense. Sun-hee begins with complaints of not being told anything because she is a girl. She views her brother as being disrespectful for not answering her questions but in the next chapter Tae-yul writes from his point of view, saying his sister is annoying with her questions and we find out that he doesn't know the answer which is why he says disrespectfully, "It's none of your business." The alternating viewpoints give multiple perspectives allowing the author to go out of the narrow confines of writing in first person that allows for only one person's thoughts. Using both viewpoints gives a more complete picture of their family and the war situation.

The tense shift mirrors the personality of the characters. Sun-hee is quiet and reflective and writes in the past tense which is more introspective; she's looking back at her experience. Whereas, Tae-yul is more impulsive and the present tense adds to the drama and action of his story. Sun-hee's uncle has gone into hiding and she keeps a journal that she wants to give to him when she sees him again. I went back and read only Sun-hee's chapters and they do stand alone, telling most of the story. Tae-yul fills in the blanks as to what happened to uncle and himself in the war. The journal shows how Sun-hee changes from an insecure young girl who is jealous of all the attention her brother gets for being a boy to a sister who is a confidante and trusted with Tae-yul's motive for volunteering to fight in the war. At the end, she even entertains Tae-yul's idea that she become a scholar. Tae-yul's story gives supporting details and depth to the story but isn't complete like Sun-hee's. It adds depth and rounds out the story.

I kind of wanted Tomo's viewpoint. The story is slanted toward the Americans and the Japanese are one-dimensional except for Tomo. He shows them as real people. Tomo is Sun-hee's best friend in the beginning but then they go to middle school and they no longer hang out. I missed his presence. There is a propaganda movie that is shown in middle school and afterwards Tomo and his friends are pretending to kill the Americans. Tomo shows some humanity or boundaries by saying they wouldn't kill babies, but if we could have gone into his mind it could have shown his turmoil at having a best friend who is Korean and thoughts on war. Later, Tomo tries to warn Sun-hee but it is cryptic and she struggles to decipher his meaning. Tomo seems like a decent kid and his father probably was too. Perhaps more of the Japanese family would have balanced it out. Or perhaps Tae-yul should have had a Japanese friend. Park does show at the end that there are no winners in war. 

The plot has some interesting twists such as Mrs. Ahn. The only loose end is answered in the Author's Note so make sure you read it. The characters all change from the father and mother to the children and made me engrossed in the storyline. I did wonder about the father and how he got the articles to the uncle. It seemed to contradict that no one knew where uncle was hiding and I would have liked an explanation regarding it.

Obviously, I'd like to skip stones more than sink them and this only takes practice. I decided to keep track of how much I read and write per month. In the book, Outliers, it says something to the effect that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. If I go by that number it will take me 40 years before I get good at this thing. Better up the writing time or you won't get an excellent review until I am in my 90s.

Reading Level 5.0
Fountas and Pinnell: Y 
4 out of 5 Smileys

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