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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Context urged in teaching "So Far from the Bamboo Grove"


Carter Eckert, a professor of Korean history at Harvard, weighed in today on the controversy in the Dover-Sherborn schools over the inclusion of Yoko Kawashima Watkins's book "So Far from the Bamboo Grove" in the sixth-grade curriculum.

He argues in an op-ed piece that it shows it shows the importance of history in the teaching of literature.

Here's an excerpt:

Watkins's book, based on the author's life, focuses on the harrowing experiences of an 11-year-old Japanese girl and her family at the end of World War II in the northern part of Japanese-occupied colonial Korea. It is a well-written, gripping tale of terror and survival, and its first-person narration from the viewpoint of the girl, Yoko, makes it all the more powerful for sixth-grade readers.

Teaching should encourage students to think "outside the box" of American ethnocentricity and highlight human commonalities across cultural and historical divides. Watkins's book goes a long way toward accomplishing these goals. Through the magic of her prose and identification with her heroine, students are transported to a distant and different time and place and can experience Yoko's ordeal and triumph as their own.

But context and balance are important. While Yoko's story is compelling as a narrative of survival, it achieves its powerful effect in part by eliding the historical context in which Yoko and her family had been living Korea. That context, simply put, was a 40-year record of harsh colonial rule in Korea, which reached its apogee during the war years of 1937-45, when Yoko was growing up. While some Koreans fared better than others, many were conscripted for forced labor and sexual slavery to serve the Japanese imperial war machine, while the colonial authorities simultaneously promoted a program of intensive, coercive cultural assimilation that sought to erase a separate Korean identity on the peninsula.

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