Star-Bulletin Features

Fine novel details tattered
innocence of 3 Korean kids

By Finn Honoré
Special to the Star-Bulletin

"Fox Girl"

By Nora Okja Keller (Viking; hardcover, 290 pages; $23.95)

There are books written for children and books written about children. Nora Keller's unflinching novel "Fox Girl" is a window through which we see children, but there is nothing about their lives that is childlike.

In the world there are none more vulnerable, none more fragile than children. Worldwide, one in four lives in poverty, existing on the edge of a precipice, every day filled with uncertainty and possible ruin. Theirs is not a childhood of play and school, secure in the knowledge that they can find comfort in an adult embrace. Instead they inhabit a harsh and unrelenting purgatory, an existence often so grim that it is remarkable that they ever smile. Suffer the little children still, grievously.


Nora Okja Keller will read from her novel "Fox Girl":

Tomorrow: University of Hawaii-Manoa Art Auditorium, 7 p.m., followed by reception and book signing at 7:30 p.m. Free. Call 626-1481.

April 13: Noon at Borders Ward Centre; call 591-8995.

"Fox Girl" is a powerful and evocative story about three such children, throwaways, struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Korean War, living on the fringe of a corrupt and dark place called America Town - an enclave of bars, clubs and endemic prostitution.

Bound together by poverty and a growing desperation, Hyun Jin (rejected by her parents), Sookie (her best friend and the daughter of a prostitute) and Lobello (a young boy whose father was a black GI, long ago departed) are confronted with one of the starkest lessons of life: They are utterly alone. And as they gradually come to terms with this reality, they realize that if they are to prevail, they must sell themselves to the GIs of America Town and thereby forsake all hope of having any semblance of a childhood. So Lobello pimps and runs errands for the bar girls, and Hyun Jin and Sookie slip into prostitution.

"Fox Girl" begins slowly, almost benignly, describing the friendship of Hyun Jin and Sookie as they go to school. Though they live near America Town, they are untouched by its magnetic corruption. But then, abruptly, the novel takes a dark turn, and their lives are transformed - as is the novel, which changes in tone, becoming graphic and relentless and ever more engaging. Nora Keller's prose is compelling and unequivocal, conveying the harsh truths these three young characters must face as life all but overwhelms them.

If there is one aspect to this novel that seems somewhat elusive, it is the interesting albeit ambiguous metaphor that threads throughout the book and is reflected in the title. Told as an allegory, it is the story of a fox, disguised as a beautiful young woman, that creeps into a school and steals the breath of sleeping children so it may survive. And Hyun Jin, hearing the tale, worries that she may become a "Fox Girl." In truth, it is the "Fox Girl" who steals her breath and her childhood, leaving only the remnants of a tattered innocence behind.

Sadly, tragically, every adult in "Fox Girl," with the exception of one (who appears at the end of the novel), is fully prepared to exploit these three children, to steal their very breath, viewing them as so much economic fodder. Hyun Jin's parents send her out into the street, insisting that she never return. Sookie's mother, Duk Hee, is consumed by her life of prostitution, leaving Sookie to raise herself. Lobello, his mother also a prostitute, plies the streets of America Town like a feral animal, anchored only by dreams of Disneyland and his long absent father. And so they are abused, bought and sold and preyed upon, with no thought of the impact such exploitation will have on their lives. The consequences are crushing.

Small children possess an almost instinctual hope and faith that adults, their caretakers, will shield and protect them from an unforgiving world. That if they wander away, a voice will call them back. It is a wrenching experience to discover that all too often what they hear instead is silence. A revelation that forms the core of Nora Keller's fine novel.



An excerpt from "Fox Girls":

Since our store sat just outside the entrance to America Town, near the point where the GIs divided the streets into white section and black section, we had both pale miguks and dark gomshis stop in to check our merchandise. But our best customers were the kids who liked to come by after school to look at the Juicy Fruit or Coca-Cola, then buy yot or wax lips for something sweet. Only the Americans and their whores could afford the miguk gum and soda.

My father had a big red and white refrigerator especially for the Coca-Cola. When the miguk gave it to us, we tried to put it inside the store, but once it was in, we couldn't open the door and there was no place to put the table of candy. Now the refrigerator sits in front and people call our store Coka, even when all we have in the cooler is kimchee.

The one time the American who installed the cooler came for a maintenance check, he asked my father, "Where Coca-Cola? This only Coca-Cola." He held his fist to his mouth and glug-glugged smacking his lips.

My father pretended not to understand his Korean, pointed to two dusty bottles of Coke we kept on the counter for display, and said, "Three thousand won."

Years later, I understood that the Coca-Cola refrigerator came through Sookie's mother, a gift because of my friendship with Sookie, and because of the promises her mother and my father had made to one another before we were born.

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