The Color of Earth (First Second)

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colorofearth-header.jpgThis first volume in a trilogy of graphic novels by the Korean writer/artist Kim Dong Hwa traces the maturation of a young girl growing up in a Korean village in the early 20th century.

 

 

320 pgs., B&W; $16.95

(W & A: Kim Dong Hwa)

The Color of Earth, the first in a trilogy of graphic novels by the Korean writer/artist Kim Dong Hwa, traces the maturation of a young girl growing up in a Korean village in the early 20th century. Korean graphic novels or manhwa are not as well known in the United States as their Japanese counterparts, but judging by this volume they deserve to be read more widely. The Color of Earth tells a simple story with a delicacy and sensitivity which avoids the cartoonish conventions familiar from many popular manga series.

Kim Dong Hwa is well-known author of manhwa in Korea but his works have not been available in English until recently. For this reason, First Second's decision to translate the Color of Earth trilogy (the other volumes are The Color of Water, to be released in June 2009, and The Color of Heaven, to be released in September 2009) is particularly welcome. It's a bonus that the novels are being released in prestige format (6" x 8 ½ " with good-quality paper and covers) so they feel like solid books to keep rather than to read once and discard.

Click for a larger image.If I have a criticism of The Color of Earth, it's that once again a man is telling us what women think and feel. The story doesn't always ring true for me, but that could be due to cultural differences: I'd be interested to hear what Korean women have to say on the subject. But novelists aren't required to express universal truths (if such things exist), merely the truth of the characters and situations of their particular novel. And The Color of Earth certainly meets that standard: the girl Ehwa and her widowed mother are rich characters with a deep emotional bond expressed in both their words and behaviors. The ancillary characters add depth to the portrait of village life and the novel communicates a sense of what it must have been like to be female in a society where you had few choices and held very little power, yet everyone felt entitled to pass judgment on you.

The dialogue in The Color of Earth is often poetic, as even the humblest characters use richly descriptive language to express their feelings. Flower metaphors are particularly common: when Ehwa becomes shy due to her first romantic crush, her mother says she is "afraid someone will notice the fragrant blossom blooming in your heart" and Ehwa discreetly asks about the future plans of a young monk by asking if he "intends to ignore hundreds of different flowers and tend only the lotus blossom" i.e. whether he intends a lifelong commitment to Buddhism which would preclude relationships with women.

The evocative line art of Kim Dong Hwa mirrors the language of his characters: they may be peasants from a world long vanished but their emotional lives are as complex as those of anyone living today. He draws human characters in a stylized but not cartoonish manner, emphasizing the universal nature of their experiences and concerns while placing them within detailed and realistic surroundings. One of his favorite compositions is to include people in a small corner of a large frame, so they are dwarfed by their surroundings (whether a grove of peach trees or a Buddhist temple), underling the fact that human life is lived within a specific context which is independent of any one person's existence.

Further information and a preview are available from the Macmillan web site at http://us.macmillan.com/thecolorofearth. | Sarah Boslaugh

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