Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s The Evening Hero is a kaleidoscopic look into the impact of war and displacement and the irony of the American medical system.
For fifty years, Dr. Yungman Kwak has reported for duty at Horse’s Breath Hospital to deliver the descendants of the immigrants brought to work in the iron ore mines – Swedes, Norwegians, Finns, Danes, and a handful of others. Though his name could be translated to “Evening Hero”, he was simply Dr. Kwak to his white patients, a small Korean man with a big heart, his empathy so keen that he often felt crampy as he told his patients to bear down. As the novel opens, Dr. Kwak learns that Horse’s Breath Hospital is closing – SANUS, a company that purchased the hospital to save it from such a fate, has determined that it is no longer economically viable. Yungman, at eighty, is one of the few who will retain his pension. But he’s not quite ready to retire, so when his son, Einstein, a Harvard-trained doctor who works in a new start-up clinic (also owned by SANUS) in the Mall of America, encourages him to apply, Yungman does, and quickly discovers that he will not be delivering babies, but will be serving as a glorified aesthetician – lasering unwanted hair from the bodies of young women.
When the clinic at the Mall of America abruptly closes, Yungman’s son Einstein is left with a huge mortgage and stock options that are worth nothing. Yungman and Yung-ae decide to take the opportunity to enroll in Doctors without Borders. Young-ae, a previously trained physician who has not practiced medicine since moving to the U.S., takes a short course to become certified as a health aid, and the two embark with a group of doctors for North Korea, where Yungman and Young-ae have an alternative motive for travel.
Lee has broken the book up into five parts, moving backward and forward in time and across continents to reveal Yungman’s early life and trauma while living in Korea during the war, the division of his country and family, the collective grief of the innocent victims of war, and the secrets that Yungman has lived with since leaving Korea with his wife, Young-ae.
Lee is one of a handful of American journalists who have been granted a visa to North Korea since the Korean War. Her book is carefully researched and the sections on Yungman’s early life in Korea, as well as his return, are layered with historical truths and emotional impact. It isn’t an easy thing to sustain momentum in a four hundred plus page book, but Lee’s ending is pitch-perfect and will resonate with readers for a long time.
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