The Color of Water (First Second)

colorofwater-header.jpgThis second volume in Kim Dong Hwa’s Color Trilogy and continues the story of Ehwa, a young girl living with her widowed mother in a rural Korean village.

 

 

318 pgs., B & W; 16.95

(W & W: Kim Dong Hwa)

The Color of Water is the second volume in Kim Dong Hwa’s Color Trilogy and continues the story of Ehwa, a young girl living with her widowed mother in a rural Korean village. Ehwa’s journey from girlhood to maturity is paralleled by her mother’s re-awakening to love through her affections for an itinerant salesman. Their stories are told through a remarkable combination of euphemism and explicitness: the former from the metaphorical language the villagers use to describe sexual feelings and behaviors, the latter from the obvious meaning behind the euphemisms as well as some of the art.

The cover to Color of Water by Kim Dong Hwa. Click for a larger image.It’s not easy being female in turn-of-the-century Korea. Men feel free to make crudely sexual remarks about women while even the appearance of impropriety can place a woman forever outside the pale. Although Ehwa has just entered puberty she’s already attracting the attention of adult men, including local laborer and strongman Duksam.  At least his intentions are honorable but the same can’t be said of his boss, who wants to buy Ehwa from her mother and enlists the local shaman to plead his case. Lest you mistake the source of his interest, this is how he puts it to the shaman: "Well, you see…It hadn’t moved an inch in years so I thought it was dead, but today it started to come alive and stand up."

You can see what a charmer he is: no pretending to be in love with the girl or concerned about her welfare.  Fortunately Ehwa’s mother, who had a very happy marriage before the death of her husband, vows that her daughter will marry in her own time and with a husband of her own choice. This contrasts with the experience of Chungja, older sister of Ehwa’s friend Bongsoon. First the girls are jealous of Chungja, both because she’s getting married and because she’ll get to ride on a train to join her husband’s family. Then they learn that the groom is nine years old, the match was made without her consent, and that she’s doomed to a life as an unpaid servant within her husband’s family.

The graphic and verbal elements in The Color of Water together create a whole which is greater than the sum of its parts. Kim Dong Hwa’s exquisitely detailed art places the story firmly in the Korean countryside, where the characters are so often dwarfed by fields and trees that they seem to be just another part of nature. But he also creates rich portraits of people who may be lacking in formal education but have the same hopes and dreams as do people living today and can express those desires poetically.

Frequently the art supplies context or detail necessary to understand what the words leave unstated, rather like the villagers’ habit of speaking of forbidden subjects through metaphorical reference to the natural world. And the portrait of life in the village is not nearly as grim as a mere recital of events may make it seem: if Ehwa and her mother lack the freedom of modern women, many would envy the close relationship they enjoy and the simplicity of their lives.

The Color of Water includes a discussion guide for reading groups which can also be found along with excerpts from the graphic novel at  http://us.macmillan.com/thecolorofwater. | Sarah Boslaugh

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