Sook Nyul Choi

Year of Impossible Goodbyes

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Year of Impossible Goodbyes Summary

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Year of Impossible Goodbyes (1991) by Sook Nyul Choi begins in 1945. World War II is almost at an end, but the conflict in Korea has been going on for much longer because Japan has been occupying the nation for thirty years. The book centers on Sookan, a young Korean girl whose family wants to see Korea become independent. Their views are dangerous—when the stakes have never been higher, they hope that the end of the Second World War will also signal the end of Japan’s occupation, ushering in a period of freedom for Korea.

Other members of Sookan’s family include her little brother, Inchun, and their grandfather. Her mother lives with them, but Sookan’s father and three older brothers are away. Japanese labor camps and the fight for Korea’s independence have taken them from their family and home. Sookan’s grandfather teaches her and Inchun in secret about the culture and history of their people. Meanwhile, the family gets by, thanks to a small sock factory. They run the factory out of their yard, employing teenage girls. The girls sew socks for the Japanese army. Outside Sookan’s home, their world falls under the oppressive thumb of the Japanese Imperial Police.

Under the rule of the Japanese, the Korean people suffer. The Imperial Police are cruel to Koreans and take anything of value that they own. Not only that, they insist the Korean people worship the Japanese Emperor. Under this tyranny, Sookan’s grandfather dies. Before his death, he makes one request of Sookan’s mother: to share the stories of the Korean people with Sookan and Inchun. The stories she tells them describe the many cruelties the Korean people have suffered—and continue to endure—at the hands of the Japanese. As though the cruelty in these tales is not enough, a Japanese Imperial officer, Captain Narita, kidnaps the girls working for Sookan’s family’s sock factory and sends them to the front, where they’re forced to be sex slaves—enslaved, used, and abused by the Japanese Army.

When World War II ends, Sookan and her family rejoice. They believe that now that the Japanese have left Korea, they will be free to celebrate their own culture. However, it’s not long before Russia brings communism to the nation, enforcing it in all quarters. Once more, Sookan and her family are forced to work under slave labor conditions to build what the communists insist will be a paradise for workers. Despite that promise and the propaganda that goes with it, life is not all that different from how it was under the rule of the Japanese. But, Sookan, Inchun, and their mother see a light at the end of the tunnel.

They plan to escape to South Korea, hoping that there, they will finally be free. They spend a great deal of money to hire a guide to get into South Korea, but after traveling on a train and on foot, Sookan and Inchun are separated from their mother. It’s only then they learn that the guide wasn’t helping them at all, but in fact, planned to take their money and betray them. Sookan and Inchun embark on a dangerous and daring mission to find their mother. Finally, they make it to South Korea—but only just. The Red Cross helps them to recover from their journey, and they are brought to their father’s apartment in South Korea. There, they are initially reunited with their three older brothers. By the end of the book, the whole family is reunited but not without having suffered great hardship.

An important theme of Year of Impossible Goodbyes is freedom from tyranny. Sookan’s family yearns for Korea’s freedom from the Japanese, and they’re elated when the war ends. Unfortunately, they are then oppressed by the Russian communists and forced to leave their home. This brings up another theme: identity. Sookan’s grandfather and mother tell her and Inchun stories to help keep their Korean culture alive against the onslaught of Japanese and then Russian control. Ultimately, they are able to retain some of their cultural identity when they successfully flee to South Korea. There, they are reunited with their family—all but their grandfather. The family is the third main theme of Year of Impossible Goodbyes.

In addition to this novel, Sook Nyul Choi is known for several other books, including Echoes of the White Giraffe (1993), Halmoni and the Picnic (1993), Gathering of Pearls (1994), The Best Older Sister (1997), and Yunmi and Halmoni’s Trip (1997). This author of children’s fiction has won numerous awards. Year of Impossible Goodbyes won the Judy Lopez Book Award in 1992. Among other honors, it was chosen for the Best Books for Young Adults list by YALSA and the Best Books for the Teen Age 1992 list by the New York Public Library.