The year is 1917 and a seventeen-year-old girl named Willow, who lives with her widowed mother and two younger brothers in a small, rural village in southeastern Korea, is asked by a traveling matchmaker if she wants to get married. The older woman shows Willow a photo of a young man and tells her he lives in Powa, a place the Americans call Hawai’i. She goes on to say that in Powa, you can “sweep up money with a dustpan”, that “clothes and shoes grow on trees, you only have to put them on”, and that “every season is late springtime.” More important to Willow than any of this, is the claim that if she goes to Powa to be this man’s bride, she will be able to go back to school. Willow was forced to leave school when her father died, and she had to help her mother with the household. It is this claim, more than any other, which propels Willow forward. Joined by two other girls from her village, Willow leaves her family and her country to marry a man she has never met, in a place she only just learned about. It is a life-altering and defining decision and Lee Geum-yi invites readers to join Willow on her journey in The Picture Bride.
The idea of picture, or mail-order, brides is not a new one and many of us may think we know about them from portrayals in movies and television. They are often used as the butt of a joke about an established character or portrayed in a “fish-out-of water” type narrative where the couple may initially seem incompatible but by the end of the program they are well on their way to living “happily ever after.” Lee shows that the stories of these women, often forced by family or circumstance, to marry someone a half a world away, are much more complex and fraught with peril than is generally portrayed. Imagine being forced to leave your home with little or nothing; boarding a ship and spending weeks on the sea in cramped conditions; being subjected to invasive medical examinations at the beginning and end of your journey, only to discover that the man to whom you have been sold (because that is ultimately what the marriages were) has grossly misrepresented himself and does not bear even a passing resemblance, physically or fiscally, to the person he claimed to be. And the women, in spite of the fraud, have no recourse but to follow the person home and become his wife. By telling the stories of three different women, Lee is able to explore the wide range of experiences these women lived. She illustrates the varieties of fraud and abuse, while also highlighting how the women would work together to better themselves and others like them.
While Lee Geum-yi has published more than fifty books in South Korea, many of which have been translated across the globe and adapted into television series and musicals, The Picture Bride is her English language debut. Lee deftly writes a story that is an intimate portrait of three young women struggling to make the best choices they can from their limited possibilities, while simultaneously telling nearly 100 years of the intertwined histories of Korea and Hawai’i. The result is a gripping, at times heart-wrenching, tale that reflects both the personal and the political, and illustrates how we are all ultimately the pawns of the players of much larger games.
The Picture Bride may be Lee Geum-yi’ s first offering in English, but those who read this book will certainly want there to be more of her work made available.
Read an interview with the author here.