While her mother was alive, Anna never gave much thought to her birth parents or her Korean heritage. But her sudden passing made Anna wonder about her other mother that lived thousands of miles away, and drove her across the world to the orphanage that facilitated her adoption.
Anna’s visit to the orphanage takes an unexpected turn and instead of her birth mother she is approached by a woman claiming to be her grandmother. The woman asks Anna to visit her the following day. Initially hesitant, Anna visits the elderly woman and in one afternoon, learns more about her birth family than she could have ever hoped for.
In 1943, Anna’s grandmother, Ja-hee and her older sister were summoned by the Japanese to work in a boot factory. Before they left, the girls’ mother gave them her antique comb with the two-headed dragon and told them that it would protect them as long as it remained in their possession. Unbeknownst to them, the boot factory was just a ruse and they were instead sent to a comfort station to “serve” Japanese soldiers. During World War II, an estimated 200,000 Korean women were forced to be sex slaves or “comfort women” for the occupying soldiers. Fourteen-year-old Ja-Hee was raped by dozens of soldiers every day and when she was finally able to escape at the end of the war, she had to leave her dying sister – a victim of a botched abortion – behind.
In the years that followed, Ja-Hee attempted to rebuild her life but could never quite escape her past. She fell in love with a kind man who was taken away by the Communists while Ja-hee, pregnant, barely escaped to the South. In a country eager to rebuild, Ja-hee found work – first at a brothel of sorts and later as a translator – but was thrown into poverty over a decade later when her past was exposed. In her darkest moments, Ja-Hee considered selling the comb that she held on to all those years and that, in her mind, failed to protect her in any way. However, when she finally learns of the comb’s true meaning and the surprising identity of her ancestors, Ja-Hee finds purpose in ensuring that the legacy of the two-headed dragon lives on.
Daughters of the Dragon is highly readable and engrossing and I flew through it in one sitting. I was instantly invested in Ja-hee’s character and found myself skipping over Anna’s commentary in order to get back to her grandmother’s story. I thought the storyline would have been just as good if not better without the “myth” of the comb but it did not detract from my enjoyment of the book as a whole.
Daughters of the Dragon is a work of fiction but comfort stations were very much a reality for many young Korean girls during World War II. I am fairly well versed in World War II history but have never heard of the atrocious treatment of Korean women by Japanese soldiers before reading this book. I applaud William Andrews for bringing light to this difficult topic and treating it with the dignity that it deserves.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by William Andrews. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.