Starry Field: A Memoir of Lost History

  • By Margaret Juhae Lee
  • Melville House
  • 288 pp.

An American woman untangles her Korean family’s past.

Starry Field: A Memoir of Lost History

How many generations does it take for a family to become American? Many children of immigrants feel a rootlessness that their parents, anchored in the old country, don’t. In Starry Field: A Memoir of Lost History, journalist Margaret Juhae Lee finds connection to her Korean roots by uncovering the history of her paternal grandfather, Lee Chul Ha, who died at 27 after spending four years as a political prisoner during Japan’s colonial rule of Korea.

Growing up in a largely white suburb of Texas, Lee makes her first visit to South Korea at 10 years old, when her family stays with her mother’s relatives in a mansion in Seoul. Over the years, she returns with and without her parents, maintaining strong ties to her kin. In 2000, as a recent journalism-school graduate who has just completed a fellowship at Radcliffe, the author goes to Korea for four months to find her grandfather’s prison and interrogation records, a project initiated by her father, who has fallen ill and cannot do the research himself. She writes:

“The pursuit of family history offered me purpose and a means to get to know my father again.”

As Lee relates her efforts to unearth her grandfather’s documents, she weaves in the histories of her father, a statistics professor who grew up ashamed of his father’s Communist past; her Halmoni, or grandmother, who resented her husband prioritizing political activism over family, leaving her a young widow with two sons; and her own wandering path as a pre-med drop-out, a jaded art curator, and a budding journalist.

As part of her research, Lee interviews Halmoni three times in 1999. Halmoni has long declined to celebrate her husband’s short life, even skipping the 1995 ceremony for Lee Chul Ha’s reinterment in Taejon National Cemetery as a South Korean Patriot for his resistance against the Japanese. Halmoni doesn’t want to discuss the past and must be persuaded. Observes Lee:

“We don’t talk about painful things in our family. We swallow them whole and let them fester for generations. It’s a lesson I learned as a child without even knowing it. Swallow the fear, the terror, the pain — and hope that it is gone forever. Push it down until you can’t feel it anymore. That’s what Halmoni did to survive, and my father.”

Halmoni is a witness to Korean history, and her story is one of endurance in a tumultuous world hostile to girls and women. At 16, she’s married to Lee Chul Ha and enters his family’s rural household but rarely sees him, as he’s a student at a boarding school who then moves to Seoul after getting expelled for wearing traditional Korean mourning garments on the day of the Japanese emperor’s birthday celebration. When he is imprisoned in Seoul for distributing Communist Party pamphlets, Halmoni moves there, eking out a living by cleaning and sewing and visiting her husband every two months. Halmoni dies before Lee can interview her about the rest of her life.

With the help of a research assistant and her parents’ high-placed friends, Lee contacts scholars of Korea’s colonial period who tell her of her grandfather’s idealism and bravery as a student leader of the nationalist movement. She also interviews her father’s relatives to get a clearer picture of his actions and, in so doing, gets a better idea of him as a person, as well as more of her grandmother’s history.

Finally, with two weeks before she must return to the U.S., a man offers to sell Lee a complete set of her grandfather’s interrogation records. They have been surreptitiously copied from a courthouse basement full of neglected records of that era, dangerous for what they could divulge. Explains the author:

“[T]hese documents might reveal a past with which the present is not comfortable. The colonial era was a time when the ancestors of many prominent South Korean families collaborated with the Japanese; when ‘nationalists’ protested Japanese rule but were also members of the Communist Party; when Korean teachers beat and kicked their elementary school students, like my father, for misbehaving in front of the Japanese principal.”

It takes many years for Lee’s research and memories to become a published book. In the meantime, she marries and has two children, and both her parents die. “Maybe my journey is best described as a late coming-of-age story,” she muses. “As part of the first generation born in a new country, I began to look toward my family’s tumultuous past only as an adult. On the plane to Korea in 2000, I didn’t fully understand why I was embarking on this search. Now, I realize that confronting my family’s forgotten past was an essential step in paving the way to the future — and having a child of my own.”

A gallery of photos and documents richly illustrates the scope of the historical setting of the memoir. The narrative threads back and forth in time (with some fanciful embroidering of events), stitching a vivid account of a country, a family, and individuals grappling with the past in order to make sense of the future. While many in power in Korea today would rather leave the past unexcavated, Margaret Juhae Lee demonstrates that looking back can be a way to move forward.

The author of Famous Adopted People, Alice Stephens is searching for her own past amid the unreliable documents of the Korean adoption system.

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