Saturday, February 2, 2013

Book Review: Letters from Joseon

Title: Letters from Joseon: 19th Century Korea through the Eyes of an American Ambassador's Wife
Author: Robert Neff
Paperback: 432 pages
Publisher: Seoul Selection (December 2012)
ISBN-13: 9788997639090

This is the kind of history book that you hope gets written but almost never does. Freelance writer and late 19th/early 20th century Korean historian Robert Neff follows up 2009's Korea Through Western Eyes with an intimate look into the life of an American diplomat and his family living at the legation in Seoul during the 1890s. Neff is the perfect choice to compile and edit this entertaining and frank look into the turbulent events that occurred during the four years of Joseph Sill's residency. Between the Sino-Japanese War, the Gabo Reforms, the brutal murder of Queen Min and King Gojong's subsequent escape to the Russian legation, they lived in Korea at a very exciting but tragic time.

The full title "Letters from Joseon: 19th century Korea through the eyes of an American ambassador's wife" is somewhat misleading. The book covers so much more than just an ambassador’s wife and her mail. The ambassador himself, his wife, sister-in-law, and several others have their personal correspondence featured here as well. Also, these letters are not simply transcribed and reprinted. Backstories and explanations are beautifully fleshed out for the reader’s consideration. 

The narrative is cohesively arranged chronologically and further divided into twenty four chapters covering topics like “Trouble With Soldiers”, “Cholera: The Rat God” and “The Murder of the Queen”. This is in addition to the painstaking number of footnotes, photographs, and quotations for quick reference. Virtually every single major and obscurely minor player in the events leading up to the 20th century is mentioned; dozens earn their own miniature biography.

This is also an aesthetically pleasing book; a luxury many history texts choose to do without. The layout is clean and the color scheme is charmingly rustic. What steal the show almost more than the story itself are the photographs, most of which are from the author’s personal collection. It seems that hardly a page passes without an affixed biographical portrait, naval ship profile, sketchbook rendering or outdoor snapshot. For a time when photography was a new kind of novelty to Korea, the collection amassed here is impressive.

Aside from some typos, fault can only be found in the book’s abrupt conclusion. Up until the ending, the reader is gingerly lead along a path that relives the unique lives of these people in great detail. The literary handholding anticlimactically ends as the Sills unceremoniously enter into a quite retirement. Such is life, I suppose. A few questions do remain about those who took over, though. Perhaps it’s outside the scope of the book to divulge the goings on in Korea after the protagonist and her family left. 

The overall result is an academically relevant history book that reads like a juicy gossip column. This is the author at what he does best; research, compilation and exposition. He tells a story that was always there for those who knew where to look but few cared to venture. What makes it worth reading is how Neff makes you actually give a damn about people who history nearly forgot. For such a niche corner of history, it’s really a wonderful book that is well worth your time.


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