Atlas Obscura Book Club: The Island of Sea Women, Discussion 2

Welcome to the second discussion of the Atlas Obscura Book Club Volume 2!

In today’s thread we’re talking about the middle portion of The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See. We’ll be discussing everything between the chapters “When Thoughts Turn to Weddings” up through “The Ring of Fire”, and sharing our thoughts and feelings. You can check out the first discussion here!

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(Image: joop/CC BY 2.0)

And with that, let’s talk once again about the terrific and tragic The Island of Sea Women. Again we’re discussing the (pretty brutal) middle portion of the book, so if you’ve finished the whole thing, lite spoilers only, please.

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General thoughts and observations? This section got pretty grim. Weddings, separations, births, war. What part hit you the hardest?

When Mi-ja returns from her first stint with her new husband, she shows Young-sook the golden bracelet that had belonged to her father. What’s your most cherished family heirloom?

Young-sook holds to the sea, and her work as a haenyo, as a pillar of strength and peace throughout the personal and political turmoil she goes through, no matter what. Have you ever held a job or duty that has become a part of your personal life and identity?

As Young-sook and Mi-ja begin to grow and live apart, they encountered a lot of struggles to even communicate. How have you made long-distance relationships keep going when you and your loved ones have become separated?

My most cherished family heirlooms are a couple of rings - one a sapphire engagement ring from my late father to my mother and the other a diamond ring my mother inherited from her father and remade into a more feminine ring.

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I was a teacher for longer than I had planned - it seemed I had a knack for caring for my students and they sensed it.

Burnout, though.

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The separation and war parts hit me the hardest. I could very well relate to the suffering and individuation that Young-sook and Mi-ja experienced but on different levels. By the way, I’m an identical twin.

I moved away from everything familiar and dear in search of a more adventurous life and to chase a few dreams, which took me to different countries. The struggle to keep familial connections was eased by email, chat and video messaging but it’s still a different matter to not be physically there when significant milestones and deaths in the family occur.

I have a voracious interest in history, which meant that reading about the experience of war reminded me of the Japanese occupation of the Philippine Islands, the bombing of Manila, the Bataan Death March, the suicide cliffs in Saipan, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the liberation of Manila. Horrific details from how people could be cruel to one another in the name of survival and stories of how heroic people could also be.

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I have always believe in writing letters or postcards - it’s a dying art to pick up a pen and write away a part of your heart. That being said, I also believe in the convenience of technology so I do email, text, call, and video chat. I’ve been fortunate that I have some best friends that even if I have not communicated with them in months or years, I can pick up the threads of our lives when I am physically with them, and the time apart seems but a moment.

These are lovely! I forgot to take a picture of mine, but I’ve got an old pocket knife that I inherited from my father. It’s not especially nice or flashy, but it was sort of a symbol of his self-reliance that he always had around. One of these days I’m going to have it fixed up and restored.

It’s funny because I think that’s probably Atlas Obscura for me. I’ve never put so much of myself into a job or a company as it’s grown , and really felt that my work was part of the bones of the job. It’s become a real part of my identity.

Yeah, I think that the book, among many other things, really evokes the pains of loss, separation, and distance. I live on the other side of the country from pretty much all of my family and a host of old friends that I dearly miss. Over the years I’ve made faltering efforts to remain in communication, but it’s always a struggle. And every time I go to visit, it’s difficult to leave again, knowing I won’t be seeing these people for a good long time. You were right initially, @AnyaPH, this book can be heavy!

The war sections hit me the hardest. Especially when it involved Young-sook’s children. As a father of young children, the idea of something happening to any of them that I have no control over is particularly devastating. The fact that this was ALSO related to a perceived betrayal made this section even harder to get through. I was up until after midnight (very late for me) reading this to find out what happened.


Have it fixed up and restored only if you want to use it because you can always just keep it as a memento and think that it was last used by your father.

I should have the rings appraised and insured, according to my husband. :woman_shrugging:

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Gosh, I don’t have children and it still affected me badly so I can’t imagine how much harder it was for you, @tbojangles.

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No, I can’t imagine being so identified with a job or living such a physically punishing existence. The haenyeo culture is all consuming; the relationships become as important as family. Your co-workers are your closest friends. There’s no real freedom to choose your occupation; you’re born into it. And the physical toll is much more than I expected. Viewing from the outside, it would seem to be a healthy, outdoor life. But, for example, everyone expects to have hearing loss from pressure. That was surprising. Not to mention the chronic pain. This is not what you see in the gorgeous photos of the haenyeo as a cultural icon! I admire and respect these women very much. The scientific research about what their bodies can do was just amazing.