This year’s One Maryland One Book is Lisa See’s “The Island of Sea Women.” One Maryland One Book is the program of Maryland Humanities in which people all across the state read the same book at the same time. The topic for this year’s program is “friendship,” and friendship is a primary theme of the story See tells, but her book also gives us an interesting and unusual look at all the roles women play in our lives — mother, daughter, sister, wife, wage-earner, and yes, very definitely, friend.
“The Island of Sea Women” is a work of fiction based upon historical fact. The island of the title is Jeju, a chunk of volcanic rock larger than Manhattan that sits in the East China Sea off the coast of Korea. Since time immemorial, the people of Jeju have depended upon the waters of their island for survival, fishing but also free-diving for shellfish and cephalopods. Years ago, thanks to the dubious logic of some long forgotten court official, the catch brought in by male divers began to be taxed at a higher rate than that brought in by females. Not surprisingly, within a very short time, men ceased to dive altogether. For hundreds of years now women have dived — without the benefit of breathing apparatus and wearing only thin cotton bathing suits — into the frigid waters off Jeju’s coast, bringing up abalone, sea urchins, conch, squid, and octopus. Over time, they have become the primary wage-earners on Jeju. Men are expected to stay at home, care for the children, and have a meal ready for their wives when they return from the sea.
You would think such a profound societal role reversal would provide material enough for several novels, but See goes us one better, setting her book during the bloody period that begins in the late ‘30s, when Jeju and all of Korea labored under Japanese rule, continues on through the tumultuous years of World War II and the Korean War, and concludes in the prolonged period of political upheaval that followed those two conflicts.
We meet the novel’s primary character, Young-sook, on the day of her first dive. With Young-sook and her friend, an orphan named Mi-ja, we learn the craft of the women divers, known on Jeju as “haenyeo.” Theirs is a perilous occupation. The freezing water can kill you, the bends can kill you, sharks are attracted to your menses, you fight powerful, unpredictable currents on every dive, and the risks presented by these dangers only mount as you age and take on more responsibility and dive into ever deeper, ever more treacherous waters. Even at the height of winter, the women dive. Scientists who studied the haenyeo found they can tolerate working for longer periods in colder conditions than any other human on earth — male or female — their body temperatures regularly falling as low as 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
I love it when a book drops me into a real, yet alien, world, one I’ve never known before, never imagined. “The Island of Sea Women” does all this and more. Before I read See’s book, I’d never heard of Jeju or its strange traditions of shamanism and what See calls a “matrifocal” culture. Truth be told, I knew little more about Korea itself, just that we’d fought a war there, the 1st Marine Division survived a harrowing, fighting retreat from Chosin Reservoir, and that the land above the 38th Parallel was ruled by a family of plump, despotic cutthroats with bad hair. “The Island of Sea Women” showed me — as all good books do — that life is more complicated than I thought, that, while I was growing up in Kentucky, fishing and playing baseball and going to the prom, a group of people I’d never heard of were fighting tooth and nail just to survive.
“The Island of Sea Women” tells a remarkable story of courage and friendship. I will not soon forget it. On Tuesday, September 8, at 3 p.m., and repeating on Wednesday, September. 16, at 6 p.m., and Monday, September 21, at 6:30 p.m., I will host remote discussions, via Zoom, of this year’s One Maryland One Book. If you would like to join me, please shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org that includes your name, telephone number, and the date you would like to attend. I will send you an invitation to the Zoom discussion shortly before the event itself. I look forward to talking with you.