The Evening Hero
by Marie Myung-Ok Lee
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Pub Date 24 May 2022 | Archive Date 31 May 2022
Dr. Yungman Kwak is in the twilight of his life. Every day for the last fifty years, he has brushed his teeth, slipped on his shoes, and headed to Horse Breath’s General Hospital, where, as an obstetrician, he treats the women and babies of the small rural Minnesota town he chose to call home.
This was the life he longed for. The so-called American dream. He immigrated from Korea after the Korean War, forced to leave his family, ancestors, village, and all that he knew behind. But his life is built on a lie. And one day, a letter arrives that threatens to expose it.
Yungman’s life is thrown into chaos—the hospital abruptly closes, his wife refuses to spend time with him, and his son is busy investing in a struggling health start-up. Yungman faces a choice—he must choose to hide his secret from his family and friends or confess and potentially lose all he’s built. He begins to question the very assumptions on which his life is built—the so-called American dream, with the abject failure of its healthcare system, patient and neighbors who perpetuate racism, a town flawed with infrastructure, and a history that doesn’t see him in it.
Toggling between the past and the present, Korea and America, Evening Hero is a sweeping, moving, darkly comic novel about a man looking back at his life and asking big questions about what is lost and what is gained when immigrants leave home for new shores.
"The Evening Hero is at once a hilarious, lacerating look at the American for-profit healthcare system and a profoundly moving examination of the long-term effects of war, trauma, and displacement on individuals, families, and cultures. I will never forget Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s evening hero, Dr. Yungman Kwak." —ANN PACKER, New York Times bestselling author of The Children’s Crusade
"The Evening Hero is an incredible achievement, a finely observed portrait of a man and the constant accrual of the past, the weight of family, of identity, of money, of home. Marie Myung-Ok Lee writes with such spirit and clarity, but it all resonates because of her skill with humor and the inevitable darkness brought on by the absurdity of the world. A brilliant book." —KEVIN WILSON, bestselling author of The Family Fang and Nothing to See Here
“Lee has created a poignant portrait of an aging immigrant doctor desperate to make sense of his history and find his place—within his marriage, his family, his community, his country. Filled with sharp insights into immigrant life and biting, satirical commentary on consumerism, this beautifully multi-layered novel will stay with me for a long time.” —ANGIE KIM, bestselling author of Miracle Creek
"A profound meditation on what happens to those of us who come to this country from elsewhere, what we gain and what we lose. Yungman is an indelible hero. Lee is a magnificent writer." —GARY SHTEYNGART, New York Times bestselling author of Little Failure
“The Evening Hero is a beautiful, lush, moving story of family, of Korean and American history, of the legacy of war, and of the trauma of displacement. With great wit and humanity, it skewers the medical-industrial complex and the deep inequity of contemporary America. But most of all this novel is a tender, complex, vivid portrait of Yungman, the indelible Evening Hero.” —DANA SPIOTTA, author of Wayward, Innocents and Others, and Eat the Document
"Heartfelt and keenly observed, The Evening Hero casts an urgent and insightful gaze on lived identity, positioned precariously at the intersection of past and future, homeland and adopted home." —ALEXANDRA KLEEMAN, author of Something New Under the Sun
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 83 members
It's quite a feat for an author to be able to write a book like this! She has covered so much--addressing contemporary issues, healthcare in America (the shopping mall medical practice descriptions are hysterically funny), racism--and to me, most importantly, the Korean history that so very few Americans know anything about. Korea has such a sad and unique history. It would be unimaginable to most Americans, yet Americans played a huge part in it. Kudos for the author for unearthing so much and presenting in in story form. As you learn more about the main character, you grow more and more curious about his history and what made him the man he is. By the time you get to the last section, you are cheering him on all the while being fully cognizant of his faults, regrets, mistakes, and humanity.
I hope this book will gain a wide audience and be the impetus of discussions on a wide range of topics. And lest you think that this book is too "heavy" I will again reiterate that some of it is quite funny!
The Evening Hero
By Marie Myung-Ok Lee
It is said that history is written by the winners – and this seems to be a true statement. However, this book presents a Korean-American doctor, Yungman Kwak, and tells his story from a poverty-stricken childhood in a small village under the Japanese occupation through the Korean War to his emigration to the US to become a doctor and to raise a family as an outsider in Minnesota.
This is a tale of what it is like to never fit in, whether in your own home country or an adopted country. Yungman is a bright and hard-working young man who, through his own efforts, the support of his younger brother (whom he abandons in Korea), and a bit of luck, becomes a physician and a US citizen. He is married to a woman he has loved all his life, but he feels she was tricked into marrying him by an unplanned pregnancy which left her dreams shattered. Yungman always feels he is not good enough for her and that she maybe does not love him.
Through a series of circumstances, Yungman and his wife decide to return to Korea under the auspices of Doctors without Borders, to help with a humanitarian crisis. They also want to return to their past, to honor their ancestors as is the Korean tradition and to revisit what they left behind.
This is a wonderful book. It addresses the Korean Peninsula and all the sufferings of the Korean peoples – both North and South – brought on by the interference of other nations: Japan, Russia, China and the United States. These nations treated the people of Korea as lesser beings, never realizing that they too were people. I gained a new perspective on – and a great sympathy for – a nation I knew almost nothing about.
The title and description are what drew me in at first, the story did the rest.
The author’s voice is a gorgeous one and this novel (which, I read, took her 18 years to finish) is an amazing and seamless read that grabs you from the first page. In words steeped in realness, I lost myself in this one.
This novel is such an incredible piece of historical fiction, and one that covers an oft-forgotten time and perspective in history.
"The Evening Hero" tells the story of Yungman Kwak, a Korean-American doctor who lives and works in Horse's Breath, a small community in Minnesota when his life is upturned after the announcement of the hospital's closing. We get to see Yungman's interactions with fellow doctors and nurses, his wife Young Ae, and his relationship with his son Einstein and his Einstein's own family, including his wife (Yungman's daughter-in-law) Marni. The novel also makes numerous flashbacks to Yungman's childhood growing up in a war-torn Korea in the midst of the Korean War, and the struggles his family went through during that time and what it actually took for Yungman to attend medical school and move his life to America.
There are so many weighty and important topics Marie Myung-Ok Lee covers in this novel: racism (and not just towards Asian Americans), the treatment of immigrants, the capitalization of our healthcare systems and medical care, the ties of family and our pasts, and perhaps most importantly, the complicated and difficult history of Korea during the 20th century, as it served as the battleground between American and Russian forces and put its own people under unbelievable and impossible situations. Admittedly this is not a period in history I am knowledgeable about, but Lee offers a heart-wrenching perspective on what so many people went through during this time, and lays the foundation for the political and cultural intricacies for the present.
The novel sways between tones of pure satire and ridiculousness to ones of weighty seriousness and heart-breaking situations, juxtaposing the gravitas of the past to the near-hilarious events that Yungman encounters in the past. She's also crafted a host of complex and multi-layered characters that include not only Yungman, but his wife, peers, and mother that you can't help but feel for each of their individual situations. All-in-all, this novel was such a delight to read and although it not the easiest nor lightest storyline, it is one that I will cherish and re-read in the future.
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