Ten years ago, Lisa See was sitting in a doctor’s office when she came across a magazine article about a place she’d never known existed — the Island of Jeju — where the breadwinners were once a hearty band of women who eked out modest livings free-diving into the Pacific Ocean for seafood while their husbands stayed home and raised the children.
It was a discovery that has led to one of the most compelling — and heartstrings-tugging — tales to spring from the mind of the best-selling author, with her new book “The Island of Sea Women” (Scribner, $27).
Like many of the Chinese American author’s earlier books, the book is set in Asia with ties to the United States, though the location this time is Korea, not China.
And like See’s “Shanghai Girls” and “Dreams of Joy,” the story takes readers on a journey spanning generations — in this case 1938 to 2008 — as moments of cherished friendship, unspeakable tragedy and, in the end, a plot twist worthy of Raymond Chandler unfold.
Early on, readers are introduced to Mi-ja and Young-sook, precocious, 7-year-old best friends despite island elders’ misgivings that Mi-ja’s father was a collaborator with the hated Japanese, who controlled the island from 1910 until the end of World War II.
The pair grow up to become “haenyeo” — Jeju’s real-life elite women divers who hone their skills over years to match an innate ability to hold their breaths longer than just about anybody as they deep dive repeatedly into frigid water to grab fish.
Out of the water, the pair grow up to happily compete for everything from husbands to bearing children — until Jeju’s historic 4.3 Uprising, a real-life event (taking its name from the 1948 starting date of April 3) that is arguably one of modern history’s least-known massacres. It resulted in the deaths of 30,000 people in 1948-49 as South Korea violently put down a rebellion over what government would control the island’s future.
Mi Ja and Young-sook become innocents caught up in the slaughter. Their friendship, strained by war, death and competing family ties, breaks apart as they struggle on against the island’s real-life historical backdrop.
By 2008, Young-sook is an old woman but still a diver. She’s part of a dwindling group of haenyeo in their 70s and 80s now revered as national treasures on an island that has become both a tourist attraction and a World Heritage Site.
She’s a bit of a celebrity, much to her annoyance — until a tourist family from the United States arrives to reveal things she never knew about herself, her family or her best friend.