When the summer rolled in, the white cabbage flowers were long gone. So was the white butterfly. All around us, the summer burst with colors and perfume. In our flower bed bloomed marvels-of-Peru, rose mosses, yellow ox eyes, cockscombs, touch-me-nots and roses. The steaming brown soil in the flower bed choked the air and earthworms turned constantly beneath the rotting balsam roots.This passage, from Mia Yun's House of the Winds, is more than poetic to me. It feels like the Korea I knew for three years as a child. My maternal grandparents' house on the westside outskirts of Seoul had a plot in front farmed for food for the family, where we kids planted beans and corn, and the grownups planted rows and rows of cabbages for kimchi, leaf lettuces, squash, melons, and eggplant. No indoor plumbing, and I still remember the day that the hand-cranked rope-and-pail well was replaced with a manual pump. We took for granted that we'd be able to walk down any street and find red salvia growing, and figured out without being taught how to pluck the nectar-bearing buds from the salvia to sample the sweetness for ourselves. No lawns; just plants and flowers, everywhere.
The writing in this book is emotional and direct. The childhood memories woven into the novel are retold slow-motion, frame-by-frame. It looks like the author and I are roughly contemporaries in age (she's about three years older), and I'm sure that a lot of what I get out of this novel is the resonance of similar childhood experiences that I never thought I'd get to read about in English:
One evening, braving a heavy rain, sister went to a neighbor's fence to pick pumpkin leaves. (We used the leaves to wrap our fingers for balsam dye. Mother added crystal pieces of alum and tobacco to the crushed balsam petals and leaves. They gave our nails that deep red dye we coveted but they also made our fingers throb all night!)Maybe we'll try this out with my girls this summer using Impatiens balsam 'Blackberry Trifle', if it works with alum powder (instead of crystals) and without the tobacco. (Their fingers won't throb if the leaves aren't tied on too tightly—I promise.)
But you don't have to have had the same memories of a childhood in Korea in order to appreciate a description like this:
Mother's favorite, though, was the moonflower. Moonflowers bloomed at the end of a long, heat-hushed afternoon, when dusk came softly and swiftly, steadily dripping persimmon red and azalea pink over the tiled rooftops. They were as big as Korean bronze gongs and lush as white satin. But later, when the sky turned into a huge dark blue dome, they became pale, blue-tinged porcelain. It was the loneliest flower in the world. Floating alone into the night mist.In my garden, I'm already seeing the tiny seedlings of self-sown "rose mosses" (portulaca), and my harabeoji's (grandfather's) favorite, hollyhocks, will be overrepresented in the west side patio bed—alcea nigra, alcea ficifolia, and althaea (I like to think of it as the Castilian "alcea") rosea. And in the shrub border surrounding this bed, I've planted a new rose of sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), also known as the mugunghwa—the national flower of Korea.
Mia Yun, House of the Winds. Penguin Books, 1998. ISBN 0 14 02 9194 6 (paperback).