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>Nothing to Envy

June 25, 2011

>There’s something good to be said for weeks like this past one. While my heart and mind process it all, I have to slow down and let it happen.

Sometimes I do that by escaping. Except I rarely get very far. Instead of trying to quantify starvation on the Dakota reservations in Minnesota in 1862, I just finished reading about the long-term effects of chronic malnutrition in North Korea.

That probably doesn’t make Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea sound tempting. But I liked my library copy so much that I just ordered a used copy via bookfinder for our permanent collection and my husband already put dibs on reading it on his next business trip.

Demick successfully juggles a challenging structure: the intertwined stories of six unrelated  people before and after their separate defections from the same city in North Korea during the past decade. Nothing to Envy is in the genre of Melissa Fay Greene’s There is No Me Without You and I found it equally engaging.

This is very recent history and I couldn’t help parallel their unfolding stories with my own. My husband and I married just before the protracted famine and economic collapse in North Korea in the 1990’s and by the time I made my first trip to Seoul in 2004, I may have passed North Koreans on the streets of Seoul and Suwon who had escaped and resettled there. Demick, then the Seoul corespondent for The Los Angeles Times, was interviewing defectors and writing the book during the years our girls were born (in South Korea) and the book appeared in print just months after we brought Joy home.

We may never know for sure. But given the arbitrary partitioning of Korea at the end of the war, my girls may have relatives in North Korea. If the story of South Korea’s rebirth as a techno-wunderkind is their story, so is the story North Korea’s rise and fall under communism. Who knows if the challenges of reunification may be part of their future? My girls will certainly know what it is like to be an expatriate of their homeland and to be genetically related to strangers, even if the circumstances created by adoption are quite different.

Although Nothing to Envy was not yet in print during my waits to bring our children home, books like this were a wonderful escape. They allowed me to get away (while not getting too far away) from where my heart was: in Korea.

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