The Island of Sea Women

Written by Lisa See
Review by Janice Derr

Life for women in Jeju, a remote Korean island, is very different than in other places. Here women are the breadwinners, working outside the home, while the men watch children, cook, and keep the house. From generation to generation, mothers teach their daughters to respect and honor the life-giving (and sometimes dangerous) ocean as they are trained to be haenyeo, divers who harvest seafood to sell at the market.

Young-sook and Mi-ja, an orphan with a troubled past, meet as young girls when they begin their diving training. The two become friends, almost as close as sisters, and dream about what life has in store for them. They both become accomplished divers, marry, and have children. Their world is rapidly changing, though, and their lives, once so intertwined, are about to be pulled apart. The formerly peaceful village becomes a violent place during WWII and the years following, as it is occupied first by Japanese and later by American soldiers. On a night when the violence becomes deadly, Young-sook begs for her friend’s help, but Mi-ja refuses, an act of betrayal that ends their friendship.

My favorite historical novels introduce me to new things and make me want to learn more. See’s story is complemented by detailed research on haenyeo culture. The reader is pulled into a rich, complex society lead by strong, passionate women. The descriptions of diving and village life are beautifully detailed and engaging. The relationships between female friends and family members are loving and complicated. This is a book that will stay with me for a long time.