Tendrils of Life is the story of a young man – a boy, really – who struggles to survive during the Korean War. It starts before the war when Jimin lives on an island called Ockdo with his mother and his younger sister. When Jimin is 11, his absent father returns to the island and takes his family to Seoul; then immediately disappears again, leaving them to fend for themselves. We learn that this is the father’s habit and Jimin has little respect for or reliance on his father.
The story then skips five years, and Jimin is 16. The war is in progress, and Jimin, his mother and sister are struggling to survive, although they are doing better than many – until Jimin’s mother is beaten to death by Sinman. Sinman’s and Jimin’s families have a long, antagonistic history, and this relationship continues throughout the book.
Jimin and his sister, Misern, become two more in a stream of refugees fleeing Seoul. Their travels take them to many places where they meet friends and foes, but not their father. Eventually, they become separated and we lose track of Misern. Jimin continues his journey and the book ends with the end of the war.
This was an interesting book, largely because we know so little about the Korean War. Certainly we’ve heard Jimin’s story before, but the history and story of the refugees is compelling. Jimin had many adventures which I suspect are the combined adventures of many people; even in these circumstances, it’s difficult to believe that one person would go through so much. Additionally, I had a hard time empathizing with Jimin, as many of his choices seemed arbitrary and foolish The writing was simplistic and the syntax is off just enough to be annoying; however, it’s forgivable because the author is not a native English speaker. Overall, because of the history and cultural aspects of Tendrils of Life, I enjoyed the book.
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