Catholic Mom Book Spotlight
When a Rooster Crows at Night: A Child's Experience of the Korean War

by Therese Park

Violent images of a grisly war ensuing in the Middle East constantly bombard America's youth as we all wonder what effect these harrowing images will have upon their impressionable minds. Yet, over half a century ago, Korean children witnessed first-hand the bloodshed of the Korean War as it encroached upon the innocence of their childhood. As American soldiers liberated Korea from the grasp of communism in 1953, they not only saved the lives of Korean children, but also opened their minds to learn why the war happened, why the American troops were in their country, and how they could change their helpless motherland so that the same tragedy wouldn't happen again. 

Therese Park brings us
When a Rooster Crows at Night, a novel that successfully blends Park's own experiences of war, history, and fiction.  As the story weaves through the narrator's comfortable home in Pusan to the mountains shrouded with Buddhist mysticism and to the Island of Cheju, where the girl becomes a temporary orphan, readers not only feel the heat of hostility between two tragically divided nations but also hear a lively child's voice capturing the humor and mystery of every day life. When a Rooster Crows at Night is a young girl's coming-of-age novel that, in many ways, is also a nation's journey during a time all its securities were menaced by the evil of war.  (Source:  Phenix and Phenix Literary Publicists) Recommends
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When a Rooster Crows at Night: A Child's Experience of the Korean War
by Therese Park
Paperback: 196 pages Publisher: iUniverse; (February 1, 2004)

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LH: Therese Park, thank you so much for your time and for participating in this Book Spotlight feature on When a Rooster Crows at Night. Please tell our readers a little bit about yourself and your family.

When a Rooster Crows at Night is a young South Korean girl's coming-of-age novel, which also depicts a nation's journey toward freedom. One night in June 1950, Jong-ah's rooster crows for no apparent reason. In her horror, she discovers the next morning that her mother has served up the bird as breakfast soup, for in Korea, a rooster crowing at night is a bad omen. Later that day, the news of North Korea's invasion of South Korea reaches her hometown Pusan.
The next day the South Korean army occupies her elementary school to accommodate injured soldiers, and Jong-ah gets a glimpse of "war" for the first time through the injured soldiers. A few days later, the city officials force all town-folks to allow war-refugees into their dwellings.
As the story weaves through the narrator's comfortable home in Pusan to the mountains shrouded in Buddhist mysticism and then to the island of Cheju, where the girl becomes a temporary orphan, readers not only feel for the people in a war-raging country but also hear a lively child's voice capturing the humor and mystery of everyday.

When a Rooster Crows at Night is a novel, but the project began as your memoir. What is the plot of the novel and how did you come to the decision to fictionalize your childhood experiences in Korea?

In the beginning, I jotted down whatever I could remember about the war--how it affected our lives as children, what we saw and learned from others about the war, and how the Americans helped. When I finished my first draft, it was a large volume, but I wanted to write more about the atrocities inflicted on "others." So many people abandoned their homes in North Korea and came to the South; so many orphans were not only "saved" from dying but also found their homes in America. Most of the events described in my novel is based on my experience until Jong-ah becomes an orphan at the port heading to Cheju island. The plot is simple: a girl wakes up to war and learns what it does to people; she sees how those around her adapt and cope with hardship and learns to cope herself too. The main focus of the novel lies on a child's growth and understanding of the world, however scary it might be. But in a larger picture, there is a poor country that was crushed by horror of the war but survives, and over a long period of time, progresses and becomes a vibrant, strong nation that boasts its sky scrapers, its people's diligence and skills, and its stable economy.

LH: For our readers who are somewhat unfamiliar with the history of the Korean War, could you please briefly summarize the setting of this book and the circumstances confronting Koreans in the 1950's?

Korea was a hermit kingdom until 1882, when it opened the door to the western world for the first time. Until then, most of the westerners, especially Catholic bishops and priests (from Paris Foreign Mission Society), were brutally murdered for teaching the Gospels. (To read about this, please go to  and click on "Korean Catholic Church-Church of Martyrs".) Korea was so behind civilization about that time (1882) that many nations, including the U.S., Great Britain, Russia, China, and Japan, all drooled over this small country clinging to big China, for it had rich natural resources as well as physical beauty. In 1905, after Russo-Japanese war, in which Japan defeated Russia, the Japanese army forced a "Protectorate Treaty" onto the Korea' king (King Gojong). The kingdom (then called Chosen) sent a messenger (Syngman Rhee who later became the first president of the Republic of Korea) to America to plead with President Theodore Roosevelt to protect us from the dangerous Japanese. (About this time Japan was expanding its power toward the China, Manchuria, even Siberia.) President Theodore Roosevelt ignored the Koreans' plea and made a secret deal with the Japanese government: that if they (the Japanese) leave the Philippines alone, the Americans would not interfere with whatever they try to accomplish in Korea and Manchuria and beyond. The Japanese annexed Korea as its colony in 1910, by killing the queen, poisoning King Gojong, and taking princes and princesses as hostages to Japan. Until 1945, they ruled Koreans with iron hands, during which, they used Korean males to fight for them and the girls, young virgins, as military prostitutes. The Japanese operated about 4,000 military brothels all over Asia. (You can read a sample chapter of A Gift of the Emperor from or When WWII ended, the world leaders decided that Korea was "Free in due process", which means that they couldn't grant us freedom because our country was too poor to stand on its own feet. Thus came the division, Russians occupying the northern half and Americans the southern half. But in reality, Korea was divided much earlier, during the Japanese occupation. As many Korean activists escaped the cruelty of the Japanese police and went to China and Russia for help, the Chinese and Russian leaders became their surrogate parents. Kim Il-Sung (the father of Kim Jong-Il, today's North Korea's premier) and many Korean activists were trained in Russian or Chinese armies and later became the leaders of the People's Republic of Korea. On the other hands, those who went to the United States for help during the Japanese occupation, they thought democracy was ideal for the new Republic of Korea.

LH: Children in our society today are bombarded by images of war in our world by our media, but nine-year-old Jong-ah had to confront these images face to face. What message do you hope to spread through
When a Rooster Crows at Night? What would you hope that readers take away from the experience of reading this novel?

No one is actually protected by what we call "disasters" and "tragedies". Who could avoid torrential storms or earthquakes? Who could be immune to deadly diseases we often hear about on the news? By reading
When a Rooster Crows at Night one would be grateful for what he/she has and become compassionate toward those who deal with evil of violence every day.

LH: What part does faith and spirituality play in Jong-ah's story?

I tried to separate faith and spirituality from religion. Jong-ah doesn't like reciting long, man-made prayers. Still, she prays on the bus heading to the orphanage in her own words. She prays when she heard about her grandfather's death, too. We humans are naturally gifted with knowledge of God and with urge to pray when all life-securities are threatened. When her backpack was stolen, and she missed home so much, she courageously leaves the orphanage, in vague hope that she could find her home in Pusan. I didn't want to spell it out, but I wanted to show that even a child could sense God's powerful hands extended toward those "in trouble" to help, to guide, to protect, and to love.

LH: Congratulations on this, your second novel. Do you have any future plans for additional novels? Also, could you describe your first book, Gift of the Emperor?

I want to write about the prisoners of the Korean War. More than 7000 Americans soldiers and civilians were taken as prisoners by the North Koreans in the early stage of the Korean War. Whether it's going to be a book or just some articles, I don't know. I want to write about the Death March, a 9-day forced march in 30 degree below freezing temperature on a 110-mile stretched along the rugged mountain terrain. About 500 soldiers and 45 civilians died in 6 months following the march, with the complication of pneumonia, exhaustion, and dysentery, not including the 98 soldiers and civilians shot to death on the road for not walking fast enough.

About my first book A Gift of the Emperor the following is the book description from Reading Group Choices for 1998:

"This poignant fictional account of real-life atrocities inflicted upon approximately 200,000 Asian women during World War II is narrated by Soon-ah, a Korean schoolgirl. Soon-ah's world is shattered when she is kidnapped from her village and shipped to a "house of relaxation" in the South Pacific. Here, she is forced into prostitution as a "comfort woman" to the Japanese military. Soon-ah's story provides compelling testimony to the strength of the human spirit, the power of love over hate, and the ultimate triumph of hope over despair."

Recommended by: Rita Nakashima Brock

"[Park's] intelligent, nuanced and humane work paints a vivid portrait of human courage, hope, love, and survival under conditions most of us cannot even imagine. We cannot read her words without being made more compassionate and committed to peace."

LH: Thank you so much for participating in this interview and sharing the gift of your writing through
When a Rooster Crows at Night. Are there any closing thoughts you'd like to share with our readers?

Thank you very much for inviting me to comment on my book. I want to mention that American soldiers fought very courageously in our country. Without their sacrifices, we would have fallen into the communists' hands, like Vietnam did in 1975. There were a few tragic incidents during the Korean War, where so many innocent civilians were slaughtered, but in a war-raging country where there was no boundary between the communists and non-communists, what were you supposed to do when the communists were taking over so fast? The soldiers protected the rest of the country from turning into the communists' assembly ground by destroying a village or two. All I can say is that the Americans saved out country from the communists hands and we are grateful.

God bless!

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