04 Jun / The Long Season of Rain by Helen Kim
For years, this 1996 National Book Award finalist in Children’s Literature sat high on my night-table stack. But once I finally opened its pages – annoyingly marked with multiple intrusive stamps of “Discarded by the Yankton Community Library” as I ordered it used – the book didn’t stay bedside-bound for long, traveling with me as I found I could not let the characters go …
The year is 1969 in Seoul, Korea (the year my family left the homeland), and the changma – the eponymous ‘long season of rain’ – returns. Young Junehee, 11 years old, is the second of four daughters, although her name (and that of her youngest sister) is more suitable for a boy. Wishful naming indeed. With a mostly absent father – a career army man who often travels – the large house is filled only with women … the matriarchal paternal grandmother, Junehee’s beloved mother, her sisters, and the kind household helper. The obvious lack of a male heir – of tantamount importance in a traditional Asian household – haunts the entire family with growing intensity.
The household’s delicate balance is gravely challenged with the arrival of an orphaned boy, Pyungsoo, just slightly younger than Junehee; Pyungsoo has just lost his family in a tragic mudslide in the new changma. Even though Junehee’s teenage older sister treats Pyungsoo unjustly without cause, and threatens her siblings with exposing misdeeds to their mother should they accept him, Junehee still befriends the new addition to the family. Her mother takes to him instantly, recognizing another lost soul.
When the father returns from a trip abroad, he absolutely will not accept the boy into the family home. A distant parent at best, a philandering, neglectful husband at worst, he turns away even as his long-suffering wife begs to adopt the young boy.
Junehee watches as her family unravels, her father’s many weaknesses exposed, her mother’s dutiful but crippling silences, her grandmother’s grave disappointment in her only son, her older sister’s senseless vindictiveness too much like their father’s, and her two younger sisters far too young to understand. In the family maelstrom awaits unwanted Pyungsoo, his young body damaged by a cruel cousin, his heart left unprotected, his future utterly unsure.
Kim appears to be a one-hit wonder, with her first and seemingly only book granted NBA-finalist status. While her characters – especially of the adult variety – are hardly likeable, especially from a 21st-century western perspective, Kim reveals the circumscribed, trapped lives of women in a traditional culture with such convincing frankness, almost as if she is warning her younger readers against how not to be, how not to suffer, how not to remain silently complicit.
In spite of cultural expectations, Junehee takes her male name to heart, speaks out, and experiences the power of being heard. Ultimately, she will be a catalyst for inevitable change, breaking the ties that bound her grandmother and nearly strangled her mother. In spite of uncertainties, girl power will not be denied.
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult, Adult