Twelve-year-old Sora and her family live under an iron set of rules: No travel without a permit. No criticism of the government. No absences from Communist meetings. Wear red. Hang pictures of the Great Leader. Don't trust your neighbors. Don't speak your mind. You are being watched.
But war is coming, war between North and South Korea, between the Soviets and the Americans. War causes chaos--and war is the perfect time to escape. The plan is simple: Sora and her family will walk hundreds of miles to the South Korean city of Busan from their tiny mountain village. They just need to avoid napalm, frostbite, border guards, and enemy soldiers.
But they can't. And when an incendiary bombing changes everything, Sora and her little brother Young will have to get to Busan on their own. Can a twelve-year-old girl and her eight-year-old brother survive three hundred miles of warzone in winter?
Haunting, timely, and beautiful, this harrowing novel from a searing new talent offers readers a glimpse into a vanished time and a closed nation.
Sora hates feeling like an afterthought or worthless because she was born female, but this is the culture in which she lives. When the war between North and South Korea wages on and her father may be conscripted, her family hears from their friends that they may try to flee south. The penalty if caught is death, and Sora's mother fears for their fate, as if the North wins, even their dangerous journey may be for naught. After things continue to get worse, her family decides to head south, where their relatives are.
The journey has barely begun when Sora and her eight-year-old brother, Youngsoo, are separated from their parents and toddler brother, Jisoo. When a bomb strikes where they were standing, Sora does not want to believe the worst, but she is unsure what to do- whether to go back home or head south and hope her parents will be there waiting for her.
It is a treacherous journey with death around every corner, and Sora must fight to keep herself and her brother alive.
What I loved: This book captures a story that is not often told, of the people who were caught in North Korea and chose to brave the journey south. The book is even more powerful because it is based on the journey which the author's mother had made during that time. It is not pretty, and this book speaks to familial love and duty as well as the danger, which feels omnipresent and so very real.
This is not an easy read- there are horrific scenes and the dangers are everywhere. However, this book feels so real and important because this story should also be told. Even as an adult, this book feels powerful and swept me up in its path. I cried a few times, but I think this is part of what makes it so meaningful and potent. There is also a theme of Sora finding her place in the world, especially as compared to her brothers and what people say about her as a girl that matter. This can be the reality for some girls/women and is important to consider and discuss.
There are not many books of this time period in North Korea, and this is needed. Would definitely recommend to adults and children alike (though be forewarned that there are some scenes of death and danger that should be talked through). This book can start some important conversations about the world, war, and the past.
Final verdict: Powerful and moving, BROTHER'S KEEPER is a beautiful historical fiction that transports readers to North Korea in 1950. Highly recommend for children and adults alike.
Is it horrible of me that I sort of wanted a romance to develop between Sora and Myung-gi? I think he was just such an appealing character, and Sora deserved some happiness. I would love to see a companion novel about Myung-gi's experience during this same time period.
I am very interested to see what Ms. Lee will write next! Brother's Keeper is a great book for readers who want to know more about Korean history or who enjoyed Chang Compestine's The Revolution is Not a Dinner Party or O'Brien's In the Shadow of the Sun. Survival fiction fans will also enjoy this.