The title of this North Korean memoir drew me in right away, and is in fact true. She really had seven names, finally giving herself a new name when she reached freedom. The journey Hyeonseo takes is amazing, and a candid look at life in a communist country.
Hyeonseo began her life as Kim Ji-hae, born in North Korea; a place that every countryman knew was the best country in the world. From the very start, her life was full of bad circumstances and the harsh realities of North Korean life. School was a means to educate children in the ways of the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung and his son the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il. But Hyeonseo was also very good at languages and this became an asset to her later in her life. As a young person she loved her mother and aunts and uncles and her brother very much. But times in North Korea became too harsh when famine struck in the 1990's. At the age of 17 she decided to walk across the frozen river to China, just for a few days, to see what it was like there.
That short, but cold walk proved to be the start of a 12 year journey. Once in China, staying with an aunt and uncle, she began to see that all people didn't starve, or work in black markets, or get arrested for minor infractions in political policy. She saw a world of fun and opportunity, and her stay lasted a month. By then, her mother and brother had been threatened and were being watched, and Hyeonseo could not return. The rest of the story is her long, difficult journey to find a better home, one that she could enjoy with her family close-by.
What struck me the most about Hyeonseo and her story was her utter devotion to her family and her real love of her country, despite its flaws. She often thought of her choice to go to China as a mistake because she missed her family so intensely. Also, the hard work that she had to do, not only to make a living and survive, but also to have enough money to basically buy her family's safety, was amazing to me. The way she educated herself and taught herself new languages was extraordinary.
I recommend The Girl with Seven Names as a truly inspiring story of courage and intelligence that taught me a lot about being thankful for where I live. I will enjoy discussing it with our Valley Book Club in September!