CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 26 . . . . March 9, 2012
Although Jae Hyun`s mother has forbidden her daughter to follow the old ways and become a haenyo in their South Korean island, Jae Hyun dreams of nothing else. Ignoring the daily dangers of sharks and jellyfish the female divers face, she prefers the nickname Mermaids and concocts a fanciful story about their origin. But she is forced to confront reality when, from her usual hiding place on shore, she discovers her grandmother has been stung by a jellyfish underwater and is drowning. Quickly cycling to a nearby house, Jae Hyun obtains help and saves her grandmother`s life. This action earns her mother`s respect and the right to choose her own destiny, even if it is to be a haenyo.
Cynthia Heinrichs has composed this modern-day story around a disappearing way of life in South Korea where she was an English teacher. Her author`s note describes how the haenyo of Jeju Island have traditionally supported their families with their harvest from the sea and how they still do so today to provide education and better lives for their daughters. But very few younger women are choosing to become haenyo and, with more than half those left over seventy, the Korean Mermaid profession is now facing extinction.
Artist Jumin Lee has imbued the landscapes with soft, muted shades that evoke the dreamy, underwater world of Jae Hyun`s imagination. Born in South Korea, Lee portrays the sea king`s castle as a layered pavilion and the king, himself, as a Korean folkloric figure. That modern and old ways coexist today in South Korea is made evident in her depiction of the different styles of dress the young people and professionals wear compared to that of the older generation.
This gentle story reveals a culture and a way of life that is foreign to most Canadians, but the universal appeal of inter-generational love, courage and the power of dreams will ensure a ready audience. Canadians are no strangers to the dangers of eking a living from the sea and, especially on the east coast where we have witnessed the loss of our traditional seafaring way of life, this story will resonate.
Alison Mews, a retired librarian, lives in St. John's, NL.
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