Our next book is Miri Kim’s 2012 novel Wolf Boy (김미리의”늑대소년”), which was also made into a movie sometimes billed as “Werewolf Boy.” It’s a short novel aimed at teens with some sketches in it, so we won’t spend very long covering it. You can purchase a copy of the book here:
It has 28 chapters, all with titles in a handwriting style that makes it nearly impossible for a non-native to read at times.
The book starts off with a short prologue describing events in 1963 at a cottage in a violent rainstorm. The village the cottage is situated in has its transformer knocked out by lightning, leaving them in darkness for three days. The man who lives in the cottage is Dr. Dongju Park, and he has spent many days with a stabbing pain in his heart. He can’t get food or go outside. The cottage also has a barn on the premises, and it’s door opens, the smell of dampness and blood wafting out. Wolves are by the barred windows, ready to pounce. The thunder is still rumbling, so the storm isn’t over. Dr. Park unlocks the padlocked windows to the barn and hears the sound of strained breathing as he also feels pain in his chest again. He collapses on the floor, under the watchful eyes of a wolf. After 15 years, his research is incomplete. The doctor dies, and the wolf comes out and takes a bite out of the corpse then retreats back to where it had been waiting.
The first chapter flashes forward to 2012 in Palos Verdes Los Angeles where many Korean immigrants moved during the construction boom of the 1980s. The family the story centers on lives in an elegant two-story house not far from the sea. It’s winter, and an elderly woman named Suni Kim is at the bathroom sink brushing her teeth and getting dressed. She is in her late 60s and has short, bobbed hair. When she arrives at the table to have breakfast with her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren, the phone rings. The call is from her granddaughter Eunju in Korea. She takes the call, and her expression darkens little by little until she hangs up. Her son asks her what the call was about when they go into the living room to sit down. Suni announces she is going to Korea.
In the next chapter, Suni arrives at the airport, shivering in the cold weather. She thinks about how long ago it was that she left her homeland, how it felt to arrive at the LA airport and how America smelled. Her granddaughter Eunju meets her, and as they drive away from the airport toward a snow-covered plain, Suni’s daughter-in-law calls on Eunju’s cell phone and asks how Suni fared after her long flight. Eunju is studying abroad in Korea, and she tells Suni all about her life there, which Suni feels is talking endlessly about nothing. They are approaching a place that Suni has memories of from her girlhood, and it has been 50 years since she has been this way. She sees a military truck and jeep, which reminds her of the awful day.
As the road changes from asphalt to gravel, they arrive at a deserted cottage in front of Baegunsan Mountain (백운산). This mountain, which is literally called “White Cloud Mountain,” may have some spiritual significance that can help us understand the story as the plot unfolds:
The sight brings tears to Suni’s eyes. Eunju asks if this is where her grandmother lived long ago, because it looks scary, like ghosts and monsters haunt it. Suni agrees that it was a place that monsters haunted years ago. Eunju asks if she was afraid there being near it, but Suni says she befriended the monster and asks if Eunju would like to hear the story. Suddenly someone calls Suni’s name, and she sees a man holding a handful of documents. He turns out to be a county worker there to clarify her identity and to find out their connection to the house. Both Suni and Eunju have some trouble discussing these things in Korean, but a lot of what they discuss has to do with taxes, sales and inheritance payments. Suni says it is hard to administer living overseas and startles him when she asks if she can spend one night in the house.
He refuses to accept her request at first since the neighborhood is deserted and it’s winter, but it is already approaching dusk, and Suni and Eunju already have sleeping bags, water and an electric heater. She takes cash out to convince him, and he leaves, telling Suni to be careful. As they settle in the house, Eunju remarks this feels just like camping and asks her grandmother why she wanted to spend the night. She shows her grandmother her boyfriend’s photo on her phone, and they talk about her plans until he calls Eunju. She goes outside to take the call, but something out in the darkness seems to approach, and Eunju nervously calls out to ask who is there. Someone is there, though Eunju doesn’t sense there’s any danger, and after a few moments, the figure disappears into a pine grove. Eunju returns to the living room and talks about a stun gun with her grandmother, then they retire for the night, turning off the light. When Eunju can’t sleep, she asks her grandmother to tell her the story about what happened when she lived in the house.
The story then returns to the autumn of 1965 when Suni moves into the house with her mother and sister. Her father died, and Suni’s body is also weak. Their family has no men, so moving is a big hardship, and they have to rely on the unmarried son of her father’s friend and business partner. This boy, Jitae, smokes a cigarette and wears expensive western suits. With a haughty, sneaky manner, he seems to be full of suppressed rage. He carries an expensive chest of drawers into the house for them, and Suni’s mother says they are so indebted to him. Upset, Suni tells her to stop groveling.
That evening her mother prepares side dishes for dinner with their neighbors, Mr and Mrs Jeong. Suni notes their peculiar dialect and odd way of eating. They talk about visiting the house in the past, and her mother asks who lived there before. Mr Jeong says it was a yangban who raised and conducted research on wolves that he kept in the barn. Mr Jeong asks about Jitae, wondering who he is with his slicked back hairstyle. Suni’s mother explains that relationship and how her husband died the year before. She is raising the children alone, and the subject of editing a manuscript comes up. After a lull in the conversation, they talk about the children and school, and Suni’s mother says Suni isn’t going to attend school because her lungs aren’t good. She’ll study for her licensing exam at home while she recuperates. While they finish dinner, Suni goes out into the garden to look at the stars before going back in to get ready for bed.
When they retire for the night, Suni takes out her diary from her bedding. She has been too busy with the move to write in it, but it contains her very negative feelings about being sick and memories of happier times with her father. She considers herself one of the most unfortunate people in the world. As she is crying softly into her pillow, she hears loud breathing at the window and a dry, rustling sound like footsteps in the grass. She gets up, wondering if it’s an animal since they are in a lonely mountain village. Going to her sister Sunja’s room to wake her, she sees her sister’s eyes are tightly closed then tries to wake their mother. Her mother is also asleep. Suni goes to the front door with a shovel to investigate and determines the sound is coming from the barn.
Suni reaches the barn and senses something sitting quietly in the dark. Only a little moonlight is illuminating the inside, so she only perceives a large beast with black fur, though she does recognize it is a wolf. She is very spooked by him and wants to run, but her body is rooted in place. Backing away from the monster, she tries to use the shovel but throws it down and finally runs out screaming. Her mother and Sunja come running and bring her back to the house on the verge of collapse.
When Suni wakes the next morning, she wonders if what happened in the barn was a dream and recalls how dreamlike the moment when she heard of her father’s death was for her and how she thought her mother was lying about it. But she doesn’t think it was a dream in the barn the night before. Suddenly, she wants her guitar that was her father’s last gift to her and yells outside to where her mother is doing laundry to find out where it is. When they look for it, it’s near the front door, and Suni sweeps it up in an embrace. Thinking some more about the eyes she saw in the dark barn last night and unsure if they were man or beast, Suni tells her mother she thinks something is in the barn.
After some discussion, her mother takes a club and heads for the barn. Sitting in the middle of the barn, they find a figure torn up with cuts. It’s a man. Her mother asks him who he is, but he doesn’t respond. He’s about 17 or 18 years old and has longish, disheveled hair. His clothing is threadbare, and his face is dirty. Suni mentions she thought he was a wolf, and her mother starts talking tenderly to the crouching boy. When she notices him looking at the potatoes in her basket, she lets him eat some of them. Suni hates how doglike he acts and thinks about how her father would react to someone so beggarly. She tells her mother to stop, and they agree to call the police.
This portion of the novel has some deeper connections for such a simple plot. The timing of her encounter with the wolf and the beggar boy seems to have some really interesting symbolic meaning, and there are some subtle elements of the supernatural there as well. For example, how would Suni hear breathing all the way in the house when she herself was crying and the animal was in the barn across the yard? I’m not sure she could hear breathing even near the cottage window unless he was inside. The boy’s appearance in her life happens at a time when her family is without any reliable man, only the young man Jitae who is very resentful and unpleasant. Suni herself is mourning for her father around the time she hears the beast and thinks of them at the same time the next morning. It’s very easy to make the connection that the wolf is some sort of supernatural substitute for her missing father and the male protector in their lives. Very intriguing. We’ll finish the novel next time.
Part one of a two part series.