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September 4, 2020

The Last Story of Mina Lee by Nancy Jooyoun Kim ~ a Review

by MK French

Margot Lee finds her mother Mina dead under suspicious circumstances in Koreatown, LA. Margot investigates and learns more about her single mother's life as a Korean War orphan and undocumented immigrant. This story is interwoven with Mina's first year in LA, which had long-lasting repercussions.
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The Last Story of Mina Lee
September 2020; Park Row; 978-0778310174
audio, ebook, print (384 pages); women's fiction

Billed as being in the same vein as Amy Tan, The Last Story of Mina Lee explores different generations, immigrating to America, and the secret legacies mothers sometimes leave their daughters. There's a disconnect between Margot and Mina, partly a language barrier and generation gap, and also a cultural gap. As Margot pointed out, growing up American can mean losing other cultures, and there's a desire to be more "white." I was struck by the line "But history always rose to the surface. Among the wreckage, the dead bodies floated to the top." It's such a stark image of loss and the destruction of the self, which Margot felt but couldn't always verbalize. A lot of first-generation born people feel that sense of identity loss, but it's hard to discuss the loss of something you never had.

Mina lost so much before abandoning Korea and moving to Los Angeles, and that loss defined a lot of her actions afterward. As Margot tries to track down her mother's last moments, she learns more about her mother that she never knew about. We also see Mina moving through grief and tentatively creating a few new relationships in 1987.

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Born and raised in New York City, M.K. French started writing stories when very young, dreaming of different worlds and places to visit. She always had an interest in folklore, fairy tales, and the macabre, which has definitely influenced her work. She currently lives in the Midwest with her husband, three young children, and a golden retriever.

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