A breathtaking true story of a rescue mission undertaken by a young woman and her family in one of the most repressive countries in the world.
Helie Lee often had heard her grandmother speak of an uncle, lost decades ago when he was a child during the family’s daring escape from North Korea. As an adult, he was still living there under horrid conditions. When her grandmother began to ail, Helie became determined to reunite her with her eldest son, despite tremendous odds. Helie’s mission became even more urgent when she realized that her first book, the bestselling novel Still Life with Rice, about the family’s escape, might have angered the North Korean government and put her uncle in danger.
Pushing through rivers and forests, fighting the cold, bribing and manipulating border guards, gangsters, and secret service agents, Helie and her father finally achieve their goal. But there are many hurdles. Her uncle is forced to make a harrowing choice: leave his North Korean family behind or continue to live in oppression and starvation away from his beloved mother. And Helie has to face her deep, sometimes ambivalent, emotions about her identity in the family and as a Korean American woman. Unmarried and outspoken, she struggles in Korea, where women marry early and keep silent, and writes eloquently about the landscape there, both literal and cultural. She comes through a heartbreaking love affair only to face an intense and confusing relationship with the Guide—the man who, despite being crude and macho, ultimately helps to save her uncle and eventually his extended family through several daring acts of heroism.
In the Absence of Sun is a riveting adventure story and a powerful tale of family bonds and reunion.
“An eerie fear crawled through my flesh as I stood on the Chinese side of the Yalu River, gazing across the murky water into one of the most closed-off and isolated countries in the world. I couldn’t believe it. Even as my boots sank into the doughy mud, I had trouble coming to terms with the fact that I was actually standing there. . . . I was not prepared for the kind of despair and insane fear I felt that day. My wizened old uncle looked nothing like the sweet-faced teenager in the faded photograph that Halmoni kept pressed between the pages of her Bible. That day, at the Yalu River, staring helplessly into his terrorized face, I hadn’t fully realized what a dangerous thing I had done the year before. I had placed him and his family in danger. By including details of my uncle’s life in a book, I had alerted North Korea’s enigmatic leadership to the identity of my relatives in a nation where it was better to remain invisible.” —From In the Absence of Sun
From the Hardcover edition.
We were on our way! Three generations of us—my father, Halmoni, and I—were going to China to redeem the past. Soon we’d be in Yanji, a city in China’s Jilian Province. Siberia was to the north, Chinese Inner Mongolia to the west, and North Korea just to the south. Westerners rarely ventured to this remote northeastern region. It was way off the beaten track. We had to change planes twice, and at last we embarked on our third and final leg of the journey.
It was unbelievable. After forty-seven years of separation, Halmoni was on her way to reunite with her son, Yong Woon. Ever since we had discovered that he was still alive in North Korea, I had not thought that a reunion would be possible. No one did. North Korea had been one of the most impenetrable and hostile nations in the world since the collapse of the Soviet Union and since the reforms in Cuba and China. Hardly anyone went in, and rarely did they go out. We prayed for a miracle.
A month before our journey began, a Korean Chinese man named Choi Soon Man phoned my parents from China, collect. He had lifted the phone number off one of our letterheads, which Yong Woon Uncle had shown him. He offered to smuggle Yong Woon Uncle across the North Korea–China border and bring him to his home in Yanji to visit with Halmoni, then sneak him back before the authorities discovered he was missing. Apparently, this man had befriended Yong Woon Uncle several years previously during one of his business trips to North Korea. He knew intimate facts about Halmoni that only Yong Woon Uncle could have revealed to him.
My family was stunned, and for days we pondered his outrageous offer. Then we unanimously decided it was now or never. Halmoni couldn’t wait any longer. Time was running out. Halmoni was a month shy of turning eighty-five (in Korean years she would be eighty-six, because a child was considered to be one at birth). Twice she had been hospitalized. Twice we had almost lost her. It was sheer force of will and her overwhelming desire to embrace her son one final time that made her rise from the hospital bed. And it was this same willpower and desire that was sustaining her during the long and exhausting journey from Los Angeles to Seoul to Beijing and finally to Yanji.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from In the Absence of Sun by Helie Lee. Copyright © 2002 by Helie Lee. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
About Helie Lee
Korean-American writer Hellie Lee tells a riveting true story of adventure, courage, and family bonds. In the Absence of Sun follows Lee's mission to find and rescue a long-lost uncle within the politically severe climate of North Korea.