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From The Asian Reporter, V13, #20 (May 13-19, 2003), page 13.


The Lucky Gourd Shop

By Joanna Catherine Scott

Washington Square Press, 2001

Paperback, 295 pages. $13.00

By Josephine Bridges

"For weeks we have waited for this letter from Korea." So begins this story of three Korean siblings who have "pursued, almost obsessively, an American identity" since their adoption a decade before, yet who "now, as adolescents will, want to find an anchor in their ancestry." But the letter, constructed in sincere but awkward English-as-a-Second-Language, contains little useful information.

"We don’t know anything we didn’t know before," says the eldest, who then takes issue with the cooking apparatus in the typical Inch’on dwelling the letter-writer has described. "What else do you remember?" the adoptive mother deftly asks. And from these "twigs and sticks of memory," she begins to craft a history for her children. She names their mother Mi Sook.

Joanna Catherine Scott’s writing is clear and graceful, and her gift for understatement makes the worst bearable. "Each time the shop changed hands, Mi Sook changed hands, too. She called each new woman Ama and never thought it strange," writes Scott. Mi Sook grows up in the back room of a coffee shop because these women "were kind enough to her, and one or two were fond, but none loved her well enough to take her home."

The students who gather at the coffee shop give her coins, which she keeps in a candy box. When she finds a display of similar candy boxes at a store, she returns with all her coins and tries to buy one, but the clerk tells her, "It is not enough." Undaunted, Mi Sook asks, "What number?" and memorizes the answer so she can "ask the students to teach her how to count that high." Through the pacing of this interaction and the universality of Mi Sook’s experience, Scott alerts the reader to pay close attention. The Lucky Gourd Shop will end with a scene recalling this one.

Mi Sook’s role model is the dressmaker next door, a woman known only as Madame. "A French name is all I need for haute couture," she replies when Mi Sook asks if she has a Korean name. Though she sells wedding gowns to her customers, Madame has never married. "My belly will never stick out like a sack of rice, I will never wear a black eye or carry bruises on my cheeks, and I will go anywhere I want, answering to no man," she declares. But Mi Sook, she says, "is too pretty not to marry."

Kun Soo, whose wife "had given nothing but daughters and a toad," takes Mi Sook as his mistress. Their relationship is awash in ignorance, deception, and wishful thinking.

Mi Sook is carrying Kun Soo’s third child when he finally agrees to marry her at the behest of both a fortune-teller and a shaman. She has told him that this child feels like her first, a son, when in reality the child feels like her second, a daughter. He has led her to believe that he owns the building company where he is actually a common laborer. Their marriage precipitates a relentless spiral of poverty, calamity, violence, and death relieved finally by a shift in perspective to the orphanage where Mi Sook’s children await adoption. But all is not well with the siblings, either. When older girls hit Li Na and Tae Hee on the head with sticks, Dae Young, the eldest and the only son, is adamant that "no one had the right to hit his sisters except him."

The aftermath of the Korean War lurks in a background of throwaway lines. Kun Soo’s mother notes that her son is like his father. "He had been a man of rages, too, and had beaten her many times. But then he went to fight the North Koreans and they shot him dead. Since then, no one had beaten her."

In the interview with the author that accompanies this novel — questions and topics for discussion are also included in a Readers Club Guide — Scott explains, "Let me emphasize that although The Lucky Gourd Shop deals with death, despair, and poverty, none of these is its underlying theme. Rather, it deals with that unique quality of the human animal, the ability to turn away, to make from the disaster of the past the best that can be made." Unfortunately, "the best that can be made" isn’t what anyone would wish for. This may be the saddest book I have ever read.


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