August 1969 in Korea isn’t the summer of love, at least in Junehee’s family. She’s eleven and the second of 4 sisters in a conservative family. Junehee’s father is in the military and frequently overseas, but whenever he’s in town, he isn’t much at home and remains distant towards his wife and daughters. The one who runs the household is Junehee’s paternal grandmother, who doesn’t let her daughter-in-law have much say in the girls’ education. Much say at all, for that matter. Junehee’s mother had to quash all her dreams and desires, even the smallest ones like wearing dresses in the color she likes or cutting her hair short.
Junehee has no brother, and that’s something everyone openly regrets, because Korean traditions strongly rely on patriarchy: even in 1969, women must obey men, sisters their brothers and younger sisters their elder sister. A family without a boy is much pitied, while girls will go to live in their future husbands’ families. A mother unable to birth a boy is a failure. Through Junehee’s eyes, we witness her mother’s struggles and sacrifices. A young orphaned boy is sheltered in the family, and could be adopted if only Junehee’s father and grandmother agreed to it. Unfortunately, while her mother warms up to this shy boy, Junehee’s father is incensed by his arrival and tells the women that the orphan needs to go as soon as possible.
That summer, Junehee will mature a lot and understand many secrets that the adults don’t want children to hear. This novel is for middle-grade readers, but as a grown woman it nearly made me tear up because it reminded me of the machismo of traditional Asian societies. The tone of the book is soft-spoken but many deeper issues around gender and marriage are addressed. It was hard to read about the mother’s fate, but fortunately the book brightens up at the end and leave some hope that Junehee’s life will be a lot different from what was traditionally expected of little Korean girls.