Friday, January 9, 2009
The Rascal and the Pilgrim: The Story of the Boy from Korea, by Anthony Kim
An orphaned boy survives the evacuation of Seoul and the Korean War, eventually immigrates to his dream America, with the sponsorship of several military workers and a Benedictine priest. Shu, orphaned as a very young boy, lives in Seoul in a poor house with “Mama Pak,” who basically is the head of a gang of beggars. When Seoul is evacuated with the sudden invasion of the North Koreans and Chinese Communists, Shu manages to cross the Han River with thousands of other refugees, crawling on hands and knees on the railroad bridge. The next several months on the road are filled with the horror of death and war, including attachments quickly made, and just as quickly lost to bomb deaths and gore. He shows himself to be resourceful, stealing food and water, and also yearning always for human attachment: a constant search for a mother and father figure. The descriptions of his wartime experiences are truly horrific, and while told with a child's voice and not the best English, the stories of torn flesh and fields of death for one so young is unforgettable. He is wounded and is nursed back to health by the Americans. Thus begins his attachment to the USMGIK as a “helper,” running errands, shining shoes, learning smatterings of English as he also learns to dream of a different future, of a future at all. He becomes obsessed with going to America, and eventually finds people who become attached to “Little Joe,” including a Colonel, translator, social club female director and a priest, and he finally does make it, many years later, and attends college. The story is among the earliest English-written autobiographies from the Korean War about a Korean orphan, and while the setting and circumstances are remarkable and fascinating, his choice to use the voice of his youth to narrate his story, and his stubborn self-centeredness (which were essential to his survival) don't convey well to modern terms of being able to grow attached to the narrator. It also falls into the genre of Christian-themed literature, though that is not its main focus. It remains an amazing story of one who finally did make it from the gutter to an American college and an American wife. Fortunately for Western readers, his precociousness and lack of early education overcome the normal Korean cultural reticence to tell all.