Beasts of a Little Land

Written by Juhea Kim
Review by Trish MacEnulty

This beautiful book follows the lives of a girl named Jade, who is sold at the age of ten as an apprentice to a courtesan, and JungHo, the impoverished boy who befriends her. The story, which begins in 1917 and ends in 1965, takes place against the backdrop of a tumultuous century of occupation, hunger, and political upheaval as the Koreans yearn for independence. Along the way we meet a wide-ranging cast of characters, including Japanese military officers, celebrity courtesans, communist revolutionaries, and tigers. The writing has a dreamlike quality that immerses the reader in a fascinating world.

Jade’s story is one of strength and survival. She has a difficult journey through life and has her heart broken more than once. When at long last she finds love, it comes in a form she could never have imagined. In the end she learns that “life is not about what keeps you safe, but what you keep safe.” JungHo’s life is equally difficult as he transforms from a petty criminal into a revolutionary. His love for Jade is unrequited, but ultimately they find they have a deeper bond than mere romantic love.

Not only is this a gorgeously written story, but Kim also gives us insight into a historical period with which many Westerners will be unfamiliar. The casual cruelty of the Japanese military, as they allow the Korean peasants to starve, and the indifference of the Americans and Europeans to their plight, provide a justifiable rationale for some Koreans, including JungHo, to turn to communism and the Soviet Union for help in achieving justice. The tiger—an elusive, majestic creature—is a fitting symbol for these courageous people as they face their doom.