South Korea’s Jeju Island has in recent years become almost as popular a backdrop for novels as tourism photos. This is in part due to its evocative female divers and the role the islands played during Japanese occupation, WW2 and the aftermath, in particular the girls who were abducted and sent far away to become so-called “comfort girls” for Japanese soldiers. June Hur’s new young adult novel, The Forest of Stolen Girls, is also set on Jeju and involves abducted girls, except the story takes place some five hundred years earlier in 1426.
Inspector Min Jewoo is a renowned detective who travels from the Korean peninsula to Jeju to investigate thirteen girls from one village who have gone missing. When he doesn’t return after a year, his 18-year-old daughter Hwani travels to Jeju to find him.
In an author’s note, Hur writes that this was a time when Korean girls were taken as “tribute” for the Ming court in China. It’s unclear when this practice started, but according to Hur there are records of it from as far back as 1337 during the Yuan Dynasty. It didn’t end until after 1435 and reached as far as Jeju Island, an island settled by convicts. In the story, families across Korea are terrified their girls will be the next victim of Chinese abduction. But to have thirteen missing from one village seems unusual and that something else must be at play, hence the involvement of Inspector Min.
Hwani’s younger sister, Maewol, has already been on the island for five years, having been sent there to live with a shaman when her father realized she could sense the spirits of the deceased. Hwani tries to reunite with her sister, but Maewol is not so eager, still angry at her father and sister for the separation. But Maewol volunteers to help Hwani teller her it’s the only way she will be left alone:
… she had reminded me three times already that she was helping me not because she cared about Father or the investigation, but because she worried I might get myself killed and turn into an angry ghost that would haunt her for all her days.
Detectives in this modern sense, and female teenage ones at that, are likely a projection onto this 15th-century Korean setting, but Hur masterfully tells this story so this consideration never becomes a distraction. She also drops a female physician into the story, which warrants an explanation:
Female physicians were rare to find, most of them situated within local pharmacies to serve wives and daughters, or the place to serve the queens, princesses, and concubines who were forbidden from being touched by male physicians.
And although it’s similarly unlikely 15th-century Korean teens expressed a desire for “closure”, the target audience probably won’t notice the anachronism; perhaps more important, the characterizations come across as believable.
Hur includes a short passage about haenyeo, or women divers, perhaps de rigueur for a book with strong female characters set in Jeju. The first actual historical mention of them doesn’t appear to be until the 17-century. No matter, when Hwani is close to the coast, she thinks of the older women still engaged in this practice.
I’d heard of haenyeos older than eighty still diving for fish. The sea made their limbs youthful again; that is what I had been told. In the sea, these old women knew no pain nor exhaustion, though they still maintained the wisdom that came with age and experience.
Hwani and Maewol’s intuitive sleuthing skills and fearlessness make them seem wise and experienced, too. The pace of the story is quick with twists along the way to keep the reader guessing. Much of the story is a psychological thriller, as there’s always a risk the girls themselves will be turned over to the Chinese abductors—or worse. Despite some anachronisms that probably come with the territory, The Forest of Stolen Girls is an engaging mystery.