By: Choon-Ok Jade Harmon
Publisher: Pelican Publishing
Publication Date: March 2011
Reviewed by: Ellen Feld
Review Date: February 25, 2011
Growing up in abject poverty, where each day was a struggle simply to find a bite to eat, Choon-Ok Jade Harmon never gave up. Perhaps she got her determination from her mother Pak Ung-Ak, who was a “haenyo,” a woman sea diver. Determined to feed her children, Choon-Ok's mother went diving for food the night she went into labor with Choon-Ok. As the child grew, she displayed the same hard work ethic and never give up attitude that her mother was known for.
With a father who was more interested in gambling and drinking, it fell upon Choon-Ok’s mother to care and feed her large family. Living on the small South Korean island of Koje Do, there was no work and most villagers spent their time searching for scraps of food. In The Iron Butterfly, the author recounts those early years of hardship, never seeking sympathy from the reader. Life was what it was, they simply accepted it and did the best they could.
After surviving a typhoon, drought and many, many other hardships, Choon-Ok’s mother made the decision to move her family to Pusan, a city on the mainland. It was in Pusan that Choon-Ok discovered Kuk Sool Won, a form of martial arts. At first, her mother refused to let young Choon-Ok take up the discipline, but when the girl’s sister married Chief Master In Sun Seo she eventually relented and allowed Choon-Ok to start learning Kuk Sool.
At this point, The Iron Butterfly moves away from the daily hardships of life in Korea to tell the story of a martial arts practitioner. The author gives just enough of an overview of the art to give the reader a cursory understanding of Kuk Sool. We also learn of the author’s life outside the practice arena, daily life with her family and friends, and how martial arts changed her life. When she realized that she would have to give up her beloved Kuk Sool to get married (it was not appropriate for married Korean woman to practice martial arts), Choon-Ok made the decision to move to the United States, “…where women are first and men second.” (pg. 103) How Choon-Ok gets her husband, their courtship, her move to the U.S. and her subsequent rise to the highest ranking woman Kuk Sool Won master makes up the remainder of this book.
This memoir had me glued from the first page. The Korean culture, so alien to many readers, was fascinating as it weaved its way through the entire book. For example, during her American wedding ceremony her husband turned to kiss Choon-Ok and the young bride was aghast. In her native land, it was not appropriate to kiss in public. From the many examples of culture clashes to the explanations of daily life in Korea, this book provides an excellent look into the life of a Korean woman, both at home and in the United States.
There is also a fair amount of humor inserted into The Iron Butterfly. The above-mentioned culture clashes will keep the reader smiling, as will the many anecdotes of the author as she realizes her growing fighting skills. From helping a girlfriend who is being harassed in a movie theater, to protecting her mother from gang members, Choon-Ok’s skills came in handy. But her mother, always the voice of reason, would remind her by saying, “It worked! … Now, try not to use it often and stay out of trouble.” (pg. 95)
Above all, The Iron Butterfly is the story of one woman's amazing determination. Choon-Ok never considered giving up, she never considered giving up her beloved Kuk Sool. Her amazing will and determination should serve as inspiration to girls and young women today as they struggle to find their way in the world.
Quill says: The Iron Butterfly is a fascinating memoir of a woman who never gave up and after many years reaped the rewards of that determination.