THE SEED OF JOY
In a fictional account of the Kwangju Uprising in South Korea in 1980, William Amos brings to life an event in history believed to have damaged citizens’ views of the U.S. to this day. The book is more about the people involved than the events, however, but as in any good historical novel, its readability and plausibility helps one to learn more about the featured events.
The main character, Paul Harkin, is a Peace Corps volunteer in Mokpo, a poor community southeast of Kwangju. He is a young man, in his early twenties, looking for new experiences as far away from his home of Indiana as he can get. While struggling to learn the Korean language, he enjoys forays into the community to check on medication compliance by outpatients with tuberculosis.
As chance would have it, he begins a relationship with a young Korean woman, Mi Jin, who volunteers to give him language lessons. Her friends are active in the student demonstrations for democratic elections and an end to martial law in the wake of the assassination of their president by the head of the Korean CIA. Paul encounters difficulties with his Peace Corps superiors because of his involvement in local affairs.
The way the story unfolds shows how events in a young person’s life can either end up just being a brief and interesting experience, or change the lives of those involved.
The book actually inspired me to some further reading. Apparently, the Mokpo/Kwangju region of South Korea has a history of student demonstrations going back as far as 1910 during the Japanese occupation. I was struck by a feeling of familiarity regarding the events in the book even though I was not familiar with the history of the Kwangju Uprising. I grew up in Kent, Ohio, and lived there during the riots in 1970. The book reminded me of how those events polarized the community, and of some of the people involved.
Despite all this, and the historical setting, the book does not harp on any political concerns. Instead, it is the story of a young man’s experiences, including living in a foreign culture and falling in love. It is the story of the people surrounding him, both American and Korean: their hopes and fears, and day to day concerns.
Amos was himself a Peace Corps volunteer which no doubt has enhanced the story by providing important details.
This novel is readable and entertaining. The author shows a sense of humor to counter the serious side of the story. Here is a passage which demonstrates some cultural differences between Koreans and Americans in a conversation about Paul between his landlady and a neighbor:
The neighbor moved next to her and picked through Paul’s clothes. “Tell me something, Big Sister. I’m dying with curiousity. The American–is he clean?”
“What do you mean?”
“Is he dirty?”
“Well, yes and no. He washes all the time and goes to the bathhouse every other day.”
“Yeh. And he never fails to wash his hands every time he visits the outhouse.” She shook her head, bewildered. “But in some ways, he’s so dirty. Do you know when he sat down to his first meal here, he turned his head and blew his nose!”
“No. I almost puked up my supper.”
“Did he clean up the floor?”
He didn’t do it on the floor.” The ajumoni gingerly pulled one of Paul’s dirty handkerchiefs from his trouser pocket and brandished it. “He blew it into this. Americans carry their snot around with them!”
Aside from humorous anecdotes of this sort, Amos does well in developing his characters. The troubles Mi Jin experiences in dating a man favored by her parents outline some of what it was like at the time for young women in Korea. Generational differences in attitudes towards the political state of affairs are brought to life in scenes about demonstrations. Some of the difficulties between North and South Koreans are illustrated by Paul’s discovery of a box into which S. Korean citizens may report people they suspect of being N. Korean sympathizers or infiltrators.
This is a very fine book. Unfortunately, it is published only in e-book format. It’s available in Adobe Acrobat (.pdf, ), and Palm (.prc) formats from the publisher’s site as listed below.
You can find more information about the book and the author at the Online Originals site.
This book is also available at Amazon.co.uk
Other books by this author, or related books if none are available: