Year of Impossible Goodbyes Book Summary and Study Guide

Detailed plot synopsis reviews of Year of Impossible Goodbyes

Told in the first person point of view, a ten year old North Korean girl recounts her experiences of the Japanese occupation in World War Two, then the Communist take over after the war. Sookan lives in the village of Kirmini in the city of Pyongyang. She lives with her family- her elderly Grandfather, who used to be a scholar before the occupation; her mother, Hyunsuk, who runs a sock manufacturing factory in her backyard; Aunt Tiger, a cynical woman who lives with the family and helps out in the factory; her younger brother, Inchun; and her cousin, Kisa, who works as a mechanic in the factory. Her father left town to fight with the resistance against the Japanese. Her three elder brothers were sent to labor camps and her older sister, Theresa, is living in a convent with Catholic nuns.
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The story opens with Sookan watching her Grandfather meditate under a tree in their backyard. After his meditation, they go inside, where he teaches her Hangul by translating from a book of Chinese poetry. Outside, her mother and Inchun prepare the yard for the factory workers, a group of girls who come from all over town and different villages to work for the Japanese Empire. After her lesson, she returns outside to help with the preparations. Soon, the captain of the local Japanese guard, Captain Narita, comes into the yard to inspect the factory. The family regards the Japanese with hatred for the way that they are treated. After they leave, Mother laments over the small amounts of rice that the family receives due to the Empire distributing it to the troops, Japanese residents, and shipping it back to the homeland. The workers arrive and eat breakfast before setting off to work.

Sookan is sent to help Mother and Aunt Tiger in the factory while Inchun spends time with Grandfather. She asks Mother about her time working in the sock factory. She tells her that she had been working for the Japanese for thirty years and recently, they have stopped paying the workers. Aunt Tiger mentions that it was their ploy to keep them too dependent to resist. Unable to listen to them any longer, Sookan moves inside of the factory to watch the workers and Kisa. She's invited to watch from Kisa's viewing platform for a while before being sent back down to help her mother. While sewing the socks, she reflects on the possibility of gardening in the yard after the war and how different Mother and Aunt Tiger are. When the work was finished, the girls left to return home and the adults went through the socks to make sure that they were good enough for the Japanese police and merchants.

One day, the family decides to throw Haiwon, one of the workers, a birthday party. Aunt Tiger comes up with an idea to travel to Theresa's convent to get a present for her. Mother offers to make the trip herself, as she knows the back roads better than anyone. While she is gone, they work twice as hard to throw off suspicion with the police. She manages to return late in the evening with a Christian book and allows Inchun and Sookan to read and wrap it while the adults made the preparations for the party. The next morning, they set breakfast earlier than usual to have time to celebrate before the police arrive. They set out a small feast with brass bowls and hot soup. Haiwon made it to the house early, worried that something was wrong. She is shocked when she sees the food and presents for her. As they celebrated, Captain Narita and his lieutenants arrived and immediately destroyed their table and confiscated Haiwon's gifts and their brass bowls. He admonished them for daring to do something on their own and threatened Grandfather's life if they did it again. After they left, Grandfather returned inside and refused to come back out. Later that day, two Japanese-trained Korean officers came into the yard and destroyed their pine tree as a punishment for Grandfather for writing in Chinese and Hangul.

After the destruction of his tree, Grandfather remained in his room. Sookan became curious to know about the Japanese, but her mother and aunt refused to talk about it. They also forbade her from asking Grandfather about it. He called them into his room to talk and instructed Mother to tell them about their family history. She shows them pictures of Grandfather in his youth, her mother and brothers, and her wedding to Sookan's father in Manchuria. She tells them of how her mother and brothers died in a fire set by Japanese soldiers and how her and Grandfather fled to Machuria, where she met her husband. They were soon found by the soldiers, who set fire to several Korean settlements and massacred the inhabitants that tried to flee. Mother and her children managed to escape, while Father and Grandfather stayed behind. Grandfather was captured by the soldiers and tortured for several months before being rescued by Father and his friends. She finished talking and put the pictures away before sending the kids their rooms. A couple days later, Aunt Tiger approaches them and tells them that Grandfather wants to see them. She hands Sookan a bowl of lemon oil and gauze to rub on his face and hands. While massaging his hands, he asks her to rub his feet, a request that makes Mother snatch the bowl from her daughter. He admonishes her and she reluctantly gives the bowl back to Sookan. She looks at his toes and realizes that they were scarred due to the torture he endured from the Japanese. Mother notices her discomfort and dries his feet for her before sending them out of the room. After they leave, Grandfather dies.

The family grieved over Grandfather's death, though Mother grieved the hardest. She didn't speak to any of the workers as they entered or left the factory, didn't acknowledge the kids when they tried to make her smile, and was curt with whoever bothered her. She simply busied herself with her work. Aunt Tiger ran the factory in her absence and Sookan and Inchun helped out to keep the police from getting angry with their work. One day, Captain Narita arrived for inspection and ordered Mother to speak to him. He tells her that the quality of the socks waned and that they planned on using the workers as relief workers for the soldiers (or comfort women). Mother is horrified at the news and begged to allow them to work harder to make better socks. He didn't answer her and simply left with his lieutenants. As Mother tried to figure out what to do, Okja, one of the workers, runs out to see why Narita was there. Mother tells her of his plans to send them to the front and she cries out in anguish. Haiwon comes out to see what's going on and is told the news. She also begins to cry and wishes that she was dead. The three of them returned to the factory, where the rest of the girls are told of their possible fate, causing them to shout and cry in disbelief. The girls decide to try to increase production to avoid being sent to the front, so every day they work from before dawn to late at night without stopping. Aunt Tiger, however, believes that this is hopeless. One day, as the girls begin to leave after work, Narita appears with some soldiers to take the girls away. Kisa is beaten for trying to intervene and the girls are forced onto the truck. The truck soon speeds off, leaving Mother, Kisa, and Aunt Tiger alone in the rain. Later in the night, soldiers appear to take away the machinery in the factory.

Mother recieves a letter from Narita, informing her that Sookan must be enrolled in a Japanese school. She packs her a lunch and instructs her to be respectful of her Japanese instructors. Inchun tells her not to speak Korean and stay quiet. Aunt Tiger escorts her to school and informs her that Captain Narita's wife was going to be her teacher. She enters the school and stands with her grade; however, since she's so short, she is sent to the front. She meets a girl named Unhi who helps her get to where she's supposed to stand. As the class sang the national anthem of Japan, Sookan finds herself unable to bring herself to sing. Narita-sensei notices and jabs her with her ruler to get her to sing, but to no avail. Then, they were to bow to a shrine that supposedly housed the Divine Emperor. Sookan tries to see inside of it and is hit with the ruler again. After the pledge, they went to their respective classrooms. Narita-sensei calls Sookan's Japanese name, a name she is not familiar with. In anger, she hits her in the eye with a pencil. She calls her again and she finally acknowledges it. The class is forced to sing the Kimigayo (national anthem) and recite the pledge over and over until Narita-sensei was satisfied. Their lessons included constant recitations of how great Japan was and how much they hated the Americans. During lunch, Sookan gets her lunch box taken away for trying to share with one of the girls. After lunch, they assembled in the schoolyard to make preparations to defend the school from the Americans.

The second day of school was just as miserable. After lessons, the class was to make weapons to help fight the Americans. Narita-sensei taught them how to sharpen the glass, but Unhi and Sookan decide to secretly make them rounded and dull. During a drill, a boy shouted in protest against the Japanese and was taken away to the Principal's office. Sookan is called to the office as well for clapping along to his protest, but she passes out in the sun. When she comes to, Mother is standing over her with a cool handkerchief. She finds out that she was expelled from the school. Over the days, the merchants refuse to sell rice to any Korean to help with the war effort. Eventually, Captain Narita made an announcement that anyone with left over precious metals could trade it for rice. Mother took out her silver hairpin to polish it and offer it to the Japanese, while Aunt Tiger gives up her gold broach. However, the rice that they have received was mixed with sand. They manage to separate the rice from the sand and eat the rice for dinner.

Mother soon becomes sick with a fever and Aunt Tiger, fearing the worst, sends Kisa to the convent for medicine and to see if Theresa would come back to see her mother. Kisa returns earlier than expected to tell everyone that the war is over and that Japan has lost. He gives them medicine that the head nun gave him before heading off into town. Sookan helps Aunt Tiger prepare the medicine in hopes that Mother would get better. Kisa returns with news that the Korean flag is being put up in the town square. The family begins rejoicing, hoping to see their loved ones again. Despite the happiness, there was some sadness. The men and boys who were sent to labor camps returned home gravely ill. Many died as soon as they returned home. Kisa informs the family that the Russians are coming from the next town over. He heard that they were looting homes, shipping men to Siberia, attacking women, and carrying machine guns. In anticipation, they hid their hanbok and other goods and put on their old workers' uniforms. While in the house, Inchun and Sookan have a run in with two Russian soldiers. They entered the house, spitting sunflower shells everywhere, and began taking anything that was of value. They then approach the two kids and try to let the know to not be scared. They soon leave.

Although the rest of the town was wary of the Russians, some began embracing their new liberators. Ms. Kim, a neighbor, took to calling everyone "Comrade" as the Russians do. Soon, the townspeople began going to town meetings and reading books written in Hangul. Mother sighed in disgust, recognizing the act of kindness being nothing but brainwashing. The next day, Ms. Kim and a blonde Russian woman, named Comrade Natasha, come to their home. They ask Mother and Aunt Tiger to come to the town meeting that night while giving them the same books that their neighbors received. At the meeting, the people sang praises to Communism and vilified Capitalism. They were shown movies on the glory of Communism and Mother Russia as thy ate a feast. On the walk home, however, Mother and Aunt Tiger remained silent. Over the following days, their routine became nothing but work and indoctrination. Sookan became tired of hearing about Communism and realized that Mother and Aunt Tiger were right about the Russians.

The fervent followers became involved with identifying traitors, earning the nickname, "Town Reds", Sookan and her family were known as the "Pinks", who did what they were told with reluctance. Sookan and Inchun attended a "Little Proletariat School" for more indoctrination. They became more wary of the Reds after the disappearance of a boy and his family. The adults decided to try to get to the South before they were trapped in the North. Kisa began actively working for the Party to throw off suspicion as he looked for guides to take them to the South. He mentions how hard it is become to get there as the Russians began strengthening their patrol on the border. He convinces Mother to leave now, as the men and nuns have probably already made their way to the South.

Kisa comes home after a few days to tell them about running into Father. He had been transporting goods between the North and South and managed to bring people to the South, including their sons. He planned to come to Kirimni at some point, so he warns the to be ready to leave at a moment's notice. Aunt Tiger soon volunteers to be more visible at the party meetings in order to help out like Kisa. She manages to get them work to do at home as well as identify between the Reds and Pinks. Kisa's straying from home causes their tensions to get higher as they try to deceive the Party members. He eventually come home to tell them that Father would not be able to get them. Instead, he hired a professional guide to take them to the South. He gives Mother a handkerchief filled with jewels to give to him as payment. He also tells her that he and Aunt Tiger must stay in town to keep the party members from going after them.

The next morning, Aunt Tiger helps them get ready to leave. The guide arrives and gives them instruction about the trip. He warns them to not make a scene if their mother is caught as it would end badly for them. They leave the house and walk for ours before reaching a train station. They tensely wait until the train arrives. Once it arrived, they made a mad dash to keep up with the guide; however, they end up losing him once they get on the train. They get off hours later and arrive at a guard house. Unfortunately, Mother gets pulled out of line while Inchun and Sookan make it through. Sookan tries to keep up with the guide, but Inchun drags his feet because he wants Mother. She scolds him before catching up with the guide, who yells at them for crying. They continue walking until they reach an inn, where the guide leaves them for a bit. However, the woman running the inn tells the two children that the guide is a sham; he was being paid by the soldiers to bring defectors to the inn so that they could arrest them. Crushed, Sookan thank the woman and leaves with Inchun. They make it to a train station and rest for a bit. An old man notices them and asks if they were trying to get to the South. She asks if he had seen her mother, but he tells her to leave as the police are constantly checking the station. She and Inchun go to a barn to rest for the night. For three days, they try to find their mother, but to no avail. They return to the train station, where the old man tell them to return in the afternoon so he could help them. They return to the guard house to try to find their mom, but are instead interrogated. When nothing useful is learned, they are sent away. Defeated, they return to the station. The old man appears and gives the instructions on how to get to the South.

They show their ticket to the old conductor, who tells them to get to the last car. When they do, he instructs them to crawl underneath the train to the other side and run down the hill and cross the field. They do as instructed and wait before crossing the field as they need to see the searchlight. Once it passes, they sprint across the field and reach another hill. Climbing the hill, they narrowly avoid the searchlight and make their way to a railroad spanning a river. They carefully cross the railroad and make it to a barbed wire fence. The sound of dogs barking and soldiers approaching prompt them to dig and crawl under the fence. They are greeted by Red Cross wokers, who bring them to their tents to treat their wounds.

In the epilogue, Inchun and Sookan are sent to Seoul after the Red Cross locate their father. When they arrive, they are disappointed to find their mother had not arrived. They spend weeks recuperating from their wounds. When they recover, they are enrolled in school. They brothers are alive and attending universities, while their father started up a soy sauce company. Six months later, Mother appeared. She explained that she was going to be sent to Siberia, but was recruited by a Russian colonel who needed a cook and maid for his wife. One day, she up and left under the cover of fog to the border. She managed to make her way across through a secret tunnel dug by the Communists. War broke out in 1950 and Theresa and the nuns arrived a few months later. Aunt Tiger and Kisa were outed as traitors and executed in the town square. Sookan still wonders about the sock girls and her friend, Unhi.
Best part of story, including ending: It's a powerful story that details the life of a Korean during the Japanese occupation and start of North Korea.

Best scene in story: The liberation scene because you could feel how happy they all were to be free from the Japanese.

Opinion about the main character: Although she is constantly told that she is wise, Sookan does make a lot of mistakes that a kid would make around this time period.

The review of this Book prepared by Gwen a Level 1 Blue Jay scholar

Chapter Analysis of Year of Impossible Goodbyes

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Plot & Themes

Time/era of story    -   1930's-1950's Ethnic/Regional/Religion    -   Korea, North (chop chop) Is this an adult or child's book?    -   Adult or Young Adult Book Ethnic/regional/gender life    -   Yes

Main Character

Gender    -   Female Profession/status:    -   student Age:    -   a kid Ethnicity/Nationality    -   Other Asian


How much descriptions of surroundings?    -   3 () Asia/Pacific    -   Yes Asian country:    -   North Korea (bad!)

Writing Style

Amount of dialog    -   significantly more dialog than descript

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Sook Nyul Choi Books Note: the views expressed here are only those of the reviewer(s).
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