Brother’s Keeper by Julie Lee

Review by Lisa Matthewson  

Holiday House, 21 July 2020 

314 pages, hardcover, $23.99 CAD, 978-0-8234-4494-6 

Ages 8-12, Grades 4-6 

Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Action/Adventure   

“You’re wrong, Omahni. It wasn’t your fault either. It wasn’t anyone’s fault.” 

That was when my mother shriveled, as if I’d thrown salt over the thin, tear-drenched membrane of her body. She wept. 

The angry knot in my chest unraveled, but her words had left a deep mark that was tender and sore. Through my watery eyes Omahni blurred into an imperfect shape. I knew I would forgive her, and over time, maybe even forget – but a small part of me would always wonder whether there was some truth to what my mother had said. 

Did you think having to practice the piano was bad? Twelve-year-old Sora has to practice hiding her father in a hole in the ground. If she makes a mistake, he will be captured by the North Korean military. And after that danger has passed – well, that’s when Sora’s troubles really begin. While on the run towards South Korea, her family becomes separated. In the face of hunger, illness and the constant threat of violence, Sora battles to bring her younger brother Youngsoo to safety. 

Brother’s Keeper deals with serious, even grim subjects, but it is a moving and inspiring read, right through to its bittersweet ending. Sora is a captivating and realistically flawed protagonist. She does make mistakes – understandable but costly ones. Her deep love for her brother is tinged by the resentment and jealousy of knowing that he is the favoured child, the one whose education has always been valued more than hers. Sora protects Youngsoo fiercely and bravely, yet she sometimes cannot help hurtful words from spilling out when she talks to him. Sora and Youngsoo’s complex relationship is skillfully and sympathetically portrayed, and the reader feels empathy for both siblings in their (mostly one-sided) conflicts.  

The events in this novel are dramatic and exciting, but even more gripping than the plot is the stunningly evocative imagery that runs through every chapter. Many times I stopped to re-read an especially powerful passage. Emotions and atmosphere are conveyed with delicate nuance through landscape descriptions (“Morning light filtered through burnt, wiry treetops”), natural objects (“Dried leaves brushed my face like paper blades”), bodily processes (“She laughed, the sound of splintering wood”), physical sensations (“Something cold as liquid metal flowed into my stomach”), and even clothing (“The wind blew in and out of my shirt, billowing it away from my skin as if I were a hollow tree.”). Tragic events are subtly foreshadowed through similar means. After Sora tells her brother of their bright future, the author writes, “He stared out the window. Treetops swayed in the wind. Only the sound of rustling leaves settled between us.”  

Brother’s Keeper is Julie Lee’s debut novel, and it is based on her own mother’s real-life experiences as a teenager during the Korean War. The book contains a map of North and South Korea, a timeline of relevant historic events, a glossary of Korean words used, and photographs of Lee’s mother. This book joins a growing number of historical fiction middle-grade novels with strong, demographically diverse female protagonists. Other recent excellent works in this category include Prairie Lotusby Linda Sue Park, and The Blackbird Girlsby Anne Blankman. Still, for me Brother’s Keeper ranks as unsurpassed in its excitement, imagery, and emotional depth.  

Lisa Matthewson is a sixth-generation New Zealander and a first-generation Canadian. She teaches Linguistics at the University of British Columbia. She is taking creative writing courses in the hope of one day writing historical fiction for middle-grade readers.  

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