Showing Us Our Humanity: Juhea Kim’s Beasts of a Little Land


In Beasts of a Little Land (Ecco, 2021), Juhea Kim portrays the struggle to adapt to—or be crushed by—the forces of history. A young girl is sold to the courtesan’s arts, even as modernizing Seoul extinguishes such diversions; a tiger is endangered more by habitat loss than by the lone hunter stalking it. Early 20th-century Korea, the largest of the book’s cast of memorable characters, strives for independence from its colonial ruler, Japan, even as the superpowers of China, the USSR, and the United States loom over the “little land.”

Born in Korea, Kim moved to the U.S. when she was nine. She learned as a schoolchild Korea’s 5,000-year history, rooted in its mythical founder, Dangun. In America, though, the most familiar period of Korean history is painfully brief: the Korean War fought from 1950 to 1953. Ironically, given the horrendous casualties among soldiers on all sides and Korean civilians, American media dubbed it “the forgotten war.” The war’s enduring and certainly not forgotten outcome is the armistice agreement that divided the peninsula into North and South. Kim calls the severance “a genuine collective sorrow because families—actual human relationships—were torn apart arbitrarily, never to be reunited again.”

Beasts of a Little Land takes place in the decades leading up to the war, when colonial Korea’s independence struggle entangled with the communist movement and the agendas of three superpowers. Against that backdrop, Kim met a primary challenge faced by writers of historical fiction: to keep world-changing events in clear sight without diminishing individual characters’ fears, yearnings, passions, and needs. Kim’s success in affirming her characters is reflected in her love of the ancient epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey. “Homer was narrating, in the eighth century BCE, events that took place centuries earlier, in the Greek Bronze Age, circa twelfth century BCE. I constantly marvel at the way he portrays human emotions, motivations, and pathos with such extraordinarily fresh language. Nothing about these epics feels dated, even though their characters ‘lived’ more than three thousand years ago.”

Another challenge of historical fiction lies in representing people authentically, even as they defy contemporary values. The hostile view of Beasts’ Koreans toward Japanese colonialists seems to clash with Kim’s aim to “reflect and uphold our shared humanity.” Kim addresses the predicament with determination. “You can’t write a book that does everything for everyone. There were some Japanese who spoke out against colonialism and were imprisoned; some Japanese and Koreans fell in love and got married. But that was not the frame I chose to capture this place and time. You have to work within your limitations with conviction.”

Kim applied to those limitations the writerly and very human tools of empathy and imagination. “The close third-person narrative gives a window into the Japanese characters’ inner thoughts and emotions, and their justifications for the way they act in the world. In fact, Ito [Japanese] and SungSoo [Korean], both despicable in distinct ways, were two of my favorite characters to write. I give my antagonists significant pieces of my own soul, which makes them relatable human beings.”

Besides Korean history, Kim is drawn to the Silk Road era and to medieval France, having studied Late Antiquities and medieval art history at Princeton University. She credits art history courses for her primary training in writing. “In that discipline, the focus isn’t to come up with some brilliant expression no one has ever thought of, but to describe in the clearest way possible, so you can lead the reader through what you’re seeing. Very often, I first see my scenes visually, so this became my most useful tool. I also channel other forms of art into my writing. Before I wrote a single word of Beasts, I knew I wanted to do something like Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8, but in a literary form.”

Beasts opens with a vivid scene: “The sky was white and the earth was black, like at the beginning of time before the first sunrise. Clouds left their realm and descended so low that they seemed to touch the ground. Giant pines loomed in and out of the ether. Nothing stirred or made a sound. Hardly distinguishable in this obscure world, a speck of a man was walking alone.”

Here, Kim creates a place, near as mythic as the roots of Korean history, in which a man is diminished to a speck, and yet occupies us as the only actor in the scene. Rich details are layered as carefully as a painter might place brushstrokes on a scroll or a composer the notes of a symphony.

The tiger that haunts the story seems to embody much more than an elusive big cat. It also alludes to one of Kim’s personal causes. “My mission is to use my writing talent to save nature and reduce animal suffering.” To that end, a portion of the novel’s proceeds will benefit The Phoenix Fund, a Vladivostok-based nonprofit working to conserve Siberian tigers and Amur leopards. “Thinking about what I can do to marry my art and activism is what truly keeps me going.”

For all its beauty, Beasts of a Little Land does not censor brutality. “I felt no inclination to shy away from violence, much of which is directly inspired by true accounts. Recently there’s been, in my view, too much emphasis on trigger warnings. It’s regrettable that so many adults think books should be safe and anodyne. Literature is not safe because history is not safe, nor is reality.”

Juhea Kim does not write “to bolster the comfortable shell that we continuously build around us to glide through our daily lives,” she says. “Great books break that shell, wound and devastate us, because that’s the only way toward empathy. Historical fiction at its best doesn’t just dredge up old scars of the past; it also provides a way to overcome those scars, by showing us our own humanity.”

About the contributor: JEAN HUETS’ novel, The Bones You Have Cast Down, is set in Renaissance Italy and inspired by the history of the Popess tarot card. Her writing is in The New York Times, Ploughshares, The Rumpus, Kenyon Review, Civil War Monitor, and others, and she reviews books for the HNS. Visit

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 99 (February 2022)

In This Section

About our Articles

Our features are original articles from our print magazines (these will say where they were originally published) or original articles commissioned for this site. If you would like to contribute an article for the magazine and/or site, please contact us. While our articles are usually written by members, this is not obligatory. No features are paid for.