I first heard about the novel The Lucky Gourd Shop from the very nice Kim on Goodreads. I was (and still am) looking to read more novels about Koreans and Korea. Kim had the good taste to recommend The Lucky Gourd Shop and I’m grateful. Thank you, Kim!
The Lucky Gourd Shop begins with what really turns out to be an introduction to the story; three Korean teens looking to their adoptive, American parents for information about their birth parents. The adoptive parents’ efforts are thwarted by bureaucracy and uncooperative personnel. Up to this point The Lucky Gourd Shop is a true story. The author, Joanna Catherine Scott is the mother of these children who had questions about their cultural and biological past. Her frustration at not being able to reconstruct her children’s past for them led to her to write The Lucky Gourd Shop, a fictionalized what if about their mother.
When the few pages of set-up are done and the actual story starts the novel becomes hard to put down. Scott creates a flawed but spirited mother for her children in Mi Sook. She was abandoned as a baby in a trash bin and taken in by the owner of Seoul coffee shop. Throughout her childhood Mi Sook was handed off to each of the shop’s successive owners over the years. This fantastical, Oliver Twist like beginning immediately creates a passed down, family fable feeling that is a crucial part of the success of the novel.
Like every good, orphaned heroine, Mi Sook dreams of the elusive independence and security. Eventually Mi Sook becomes the mistress and then wife of a local construction worker. Her husband, Kun Soo, is a man so desperate for sons that he is willing to jettison the wife that has given birth to his five daughters and marry a woman with no family or money to bring him honor and status. This is no love match and there is unhappiness for husband and wife right from the start, but Scott does not to make a villain of either character. If looked at outside of his culture and economic circumstances Kun Soo’s behavior is brutal and distressing but Scott is careful to try to create a rounded picture of each of their lives and experiences. It’s impossible to forgive Kun Soo but you do see him as every bit as trapped in poverty and tradition as Mi Sook.
The journey of Mi Sook from friendless orphan to wife and mother, from a hopeful child to a woman whose vision of her children’s future is so bleak that she feels compelled to abandon them at an orphanage is powerfully told. Scott weaves other character’s tales of trouble, Korean myths, culture and history into the storyline so that the story of Mi Sook and her circumstances has a believability and depth to it.
Joanna Scott gave her children a lovely gift in The Lucky Gourd Shop. This ancestry made be cut from whole cloth but it has credibility, courage and heart. Reading this novel I was reminded of stories of stories from my own family’s past. None of our stories are so harrowing but they are very important to my own sense of identity and belonging.