The Picture Bride – Lee Geum-yi

Could not “put this down” though I was listening to the audiobook of The Picture Bride, a beautiful portrayal of the lives of three women from a rural area in Korea in the early 1900s. The many Korean men who traveled to Hawaii, then a U.S. territory, wanted to marry as they became financially able. Ultimately, the U.S. allowed them to bring wives from home, found through matchmakers via the exchange of pictures. The man sent money for passage and supplies and young women of 18 and a little older traveled to a quick marriage ceremony with rented veils and bouquets they could keep. Willow, the protagonist, is the only daughter of a family that has known great loss. Her father died in the war against Japan and then her elder brother died, leaving her mother to support Willow and her younger brothers through her beautiful sewing and embroidery work. Willow’s best friend Hongju is the daughter of the wealthy family in her village. Also from the village is Songhwa, the illegitimate daughter of a madwoman, granddaughter of a Shaman. Shamans are very low class in Korea. Children threw stones at Songwa when she was a child.

We follow these women to Hawaii and their matches, focusing on Willow’s experiences as she navigates her internal conflicts over what marriage should be. She seeks something more akin to the lovers in Hongju’s romance novels than the Confucian marriage of her parents in which the man and woman lead rather separate, parallel lives. Willow wants further education, having learned to read, just. She had to leave school when her father died. Boys had to have priority. Willow believed the matchmaker’s tales of Hawaii, where clothing grows on trees, money is swept from the ground and she would have easy access to education. I really valued learning about Korean culture, class structure, and the overarching story that impacts Willow’s life, the Japanese occupation of Korea and the different factions of the resistance movements. The book is powerfully good in this respect, portraying a fractured Korean resistance that turned violent at times with great rhetoric and anger on each side. The friendship of the three women, their different experiences with picture marriages, their ability to make it or not is central to the story.Along the way, we meet others who travel on the same boat as the three women and those already there when they arrive, who traveled to Hawaii sooner. Their stories develop and enrich the lives of the other women and the storyline..

At the end of the novel, Part 3 takes an eighteen year leap to the time of the Pearl Harbor bombing and we are given a kind of detailed epilogue through the eyes of Willow’s daughter. Until I thought of it as an epilogue, it felt jarring to have the timeline take that jump. In fact, it is a perfect device to grant us our wish that we learn what happened without slogging unnecessarily through more details to get there. We understand these women. We care about them. We root for them as they find creative ways to make a living with some strife but usually putting food on the table and a roof over their heads that is better than what they would have had in Korea. No clothes on trees. No gold in the streets. An education but not book learning.

I love when a story I know has been translated shines through. A good translator has to capture the spirit and tone of the writing without being untrue to the story. I imagine this was the case here, because I deeply enjoyed this book.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s