Librarian’s Choice – Friendship in a Time of Tragedy

By Lisa Navidi, Davis Library

Every year the Maryland Humanities Commission, through The One Maryland One Book program chooses a book that promotes discussion in the community and sponsors book discussions throughout Maryland. For 2020 they chose The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See, one of the most memorable books I have read this year.

Lisa See is known for her many novels based on the strong bonds of women, primarily Chinese women. Her latest novel, however, is set on Jeju Island off the coast of Korea. Against the historically accurate portrait of an all-female diving collective, Lisa See highlights the friendship of Young-sook and Mi-ja, best friends since they were young divers in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation of Korea. This is a tricky situation for them because Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, hated by most islanders. Young-sook’s mother is the head of the all-female diving collective, who invites Mi-ja to be part of the “baby divers”, young girls learning how to dive.

The novel follows their friendship throughout their young lives, as they travel to foreign lands diving for their collective and planning their future together. Their lives take different turns as Young-sook marries a young progressive teacher and Mi-ja marries a rich, strong, often violent, businessman allied with the Japanese government.

The sad and violent history of Korea from the Japanese occupation, throughout WW2 and the Korean War colors their lives and drives them apart. And one terrible day, their friendship is ripped apart and there is no turning back. Each woman must find her own way separately.

As Young-sook learns to deal with tragedy and heartbreak, can she learn to forgive Mi-ja for what she feels is an unforgivable act?

Much of this novel is based on fact. The all-female diving collective, known as the Haenyeo, has been active since the 17th century and has created a semi-matriarchal society where women dive and men take care of the family. Watch this interesting video on the culture of the Haenyeo:

If you are interested in the history of Korea, this novel is actually a good source of information. And please read other novels by Lisa See.

Here is a list of past One Maryland One Book choices