Review of David L. Meth's A Hint of Light

hint-light-140A Hint of Light
by David L. Meth (Korea 1971–72)
CreateSpace Writers’ Productions
$14.95
303 pages
August 2010

Reviewed by Barbara E. Joe (Honduras 2000–03)

THIS NOVEL, REPORTEDLY WRITTEN by an award-winning playwright, chronicles the life of a black-Korean street boy, Byung-suk, born in 1960, who dreams of living in America, his unknown GI father’s home. Indeed, with its prolific dialogue and rapidly shifting graphic scenes, the book has aspects of a play or even of a film script. According to the cover blurb, the author, David Meth, spent years doing research, including in Korea and Japan.

The narrative starts out with a bang, offering a gritty, dramatic tale of the squalor, violence, and unrelenting challenges of young Byung-suk’s struggle for survival in an Oliver Twistian underworld of prostitution, thievery, drunkenness, extortion, and physical deprivation. The early sections, depicting the tumultuous post-war era of the author’s Volunteer service in Korea — including a walk-on by two PCVs — are almost overwhelming in their horror, but still ring true. They reveal Meth’s intimate knowledge, sincerity, and attention to detail, and evoke genuine sympathy for the war’s throw-away children, abandoned to their fate on Seoul’s mean streets. The reader senses that the writer has actually witnessed it all firsthand. The quirky, fluid writing style moves the action right along and descriptions are often apt and vivid: “gold leaves lay like a quilt” and “red embers of ash” dangled from a burning cigarette. Later, Tokyo shoppers are observed hurrying along “in short quick steps” and they “obeyed the signals,” something I’ve witnessed there myself.

I’d been eager to read this book because of intersections with my own life, including with Korea, Japan, and international adoption. Indeed, in the early chapters, I became so engrossed, I missed my metro-subway stop. But mid-way, the fast-moving narrative style begins to falter and becomes uneven. Wonderfully credible and emotive dialogue on occasion abruptly shifts into something stilted and flat. And while suggestive plotting that leaves conclusions to the reader’s imagination can be powerful, some loose threads are left hanging. The book’s early promise and authenticity eventually give way to incredible plot twists as the author propels Byung-suk and his side-kick, Miya, a cute Korean-Caucasian girl with a limp, through a series of wish-fulfilling coincidences and a gratuitous trip to Japan, apparently contrived to demonstrate the author’s familiarity with that country.

After my own struggles tutoring Honduran kids in English as a PCV, I can only envy the prowess of the two young orphans, who, without any formal education, learn — not only to read and write, but speak unaccented American English — from a prostitute raised in an orphanage, as well as to read, write, and speak fluent Japanese from an elderly cook who’d acquired it during the occupation. In contrast, other Asians say “belly solly” and “herro,” with their English pronunciation looking like caricatures or odd typos, and too many real typos appear as well.

There are other questions. Would a Korean street woman, after abandoning her illegitimate daughter, end up married to an American colonel? Would unrelated young teens sleep together chastely in the same bed as brother and sister? Not impossible, of course, but highly unlikely, which raises the further question of whether this story is intended as a mere adventure fantasy or a realistic portrayal? The author seems unable to decide. Then, although they’re mixed-race orphans without birth certificates, the lucky protagonists are improbably granted visas to racially purist Japan “quickly and with pleasure,” later obtaining U.S. visas almost as easily. Plane tickets and cash miraculously appear just in time for their epic trip to America, a homeland they’ve never seen. “‘Free,’ said Miya, ‘We’re free’ . . . Their passports might not say it, but they were American. They were going home.” I’m not giving away the ending here, since the cover reveals it right up front.

Byung-suk has already chosen his American name, Joe Winter. And when the kids arrive in New York City, whom do they run into out on the street but Mr. Lim, their long-lost benefactor from the slums of Seoul! As for the title’s “hint of light,” that’s the glow emitted by our hero after reaching the promised land. A happy ending worthy of a Disney movie.

Barbara Joe is the author of Triumph & Hope: Golden Years with the Peace Corps in Honduras, declared Best Peace Corps Memoir of 2009 by Peace Corps Writers. She works as a freelance writer and Spanish interpreter and translator in Washington, DC.

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  • To Barbara E Joe, reviewer of A HINT OF LIGHT

    Dear Ms. Joe,
    Thank you for taking the time to review my book. What I don’t understand is why you say, “Reportedly written by an award-winning playwright.” I wrote it, and for anyone interested, I am an award-winning playwright whose background and credits are posted on my website: web.mac.com/dlm67.

    For your benefit and others, many of the children I interviewed attributed their survival to, in the words of one boy, “Impossible makes possible.” Therefore, to the extent that these children were able to live from one day to the next depended very greatly on their survival skills and serendipity, sometimes a kindness found in the most unlikely places. A turn down the wrong corner, however, could just as easily put them in prison or end their lives. Every child or the adoptive parents I interviewed, and especially one woman who became a friend of mine and took in well over a hundred of these children, credited their survival to “incredible plot twists,” as Ms. Joe puts it. Such twists were initiated by this woman as she drove along the streets of Seoul in a jeep looking for these children and then actually found them. Much to the chagrin of the residents of the American compound where she lived, she took them into her house. Ms. Joe should also remember from her reading of the book that these young teens who slept together and never had sex had a very strong bond. They grew up together as orphans and protected each other against everyone else from the time they were children. Their love was based on mutual respect and the fact that they had no one else and nowhere else to go. If they had one room and a cover, they were lucky.

    Ms. Joe also questions how an ordinary prostitute who abandons her child can end up married to a senior military officer. The answer: beauty, the ability to speak English and someone who loves her. I have known such people, and the reasons for love and marriage often transcend common understanding or logic. However, we cannot forget that a major goal of the prostitutes was to find an American to get them out of their horribly abusive lives … a very good incentive to learn English.

    Whether it is for theater or fiction, I write about multicultural themes and people caught between cultures, both from personal experience and from those I know who have come from these circumstances. Therefore, when you say, Ms. Joe, that I write about a “gratuitous trip to Japan, apparently contrived to demonstrate the author’s familiarity with that country,” I have to say that your experience and mine simply take different directions and come from different sources. As far as children such as these who survive strictly on their wits to be able to learn and master languages with complete fluency: no problem. I have known and taught many of them. And when one has to learn another language to eat, the motivation is strong.

    You question how these children without birth certificates would be “granted visas to racially purist Japan ‘quickly and with pleasure.'” A more careful reading of what led up to that event would reveal who helped them get the visas and that they were not granted their visas without terrible humiliation. You say: “Plane tickets and cash miraculously appear just in time for their epic trip to America, a homeland they’ve never seen.” Actually, a closer reading of the novel would reveal that the tickets and cash did not “miraculously” appear, but had much to do with someone who had planned this quite carefully. The people who do offer kindness to these children see something in them that is either missing from their own lives or a reflection of their own lives.

    You write: “As for the title’s “hint of light,” that’s the glow emitted by our hero after reaching the promised land.” Not only should you leave this up to the reader to decide, but you couldn’t be more wrong—especially since the meaning is referred to several times in the novel. The cover reveals nothing remotely close to the fact that these children are going to America. So I am not sure which book cover you were looking at, Ms. Joe. Your most egregious offense, however, is that you mention Byung-suk and Miya running into Mr. Lim in New York. It shows a gross insensitivity to the author and the book and a lack of respect for the prospective reader.

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