Review: Young-Hee and the Pullocho by Mark James Russell

Young Hee and the Pullocho

Paperback, 256 pages
Published May 12th 2015 by Tuttle Publishing
Source: Publisher

Being an aficionado for Korean culture and food, when I saw the back copy of this middlegrade novel, I was super excited so here it is, reproduced for you:

So annoying.

In Young-hee’s life everything feels wrong. It seemed like only yesterday that her world was just as it should be. But now her dad is gone, her mom is overextended, and Young-hee is forced to move back to Seoul—and not a nice part of Seoul, either. To make matters worse, the girls at her new school are nasty, and her little brother Bum is an insufferable, attention-hogging pain.

Then Young-hee stumbles into a magical world, where the fairy stories of her childhood are real and all the frustrations of her everyday life fade away—until Bum is kidnapped, and the only way Young-hee can save him is by finding the magical pullocho plant. Soon, she is plunged into an epic quest, encountering dragons and fairies and facing decisions that affect not only Bum, but the fate of an entire world.

 

Doesn’t that sound thrilling? I am always looking for books that are set in places other than North America or fantastic European countries so this one practically had my name on it.

Young-Hee, the protagonist, is not particularly likable. Her signature phrase “jigyeowo” means “so annoying” and for a while she was exactly what she kept on saying. This is not to imply that her situation did not warrant sympathy, it’s just that in the manner of adolescents everywhere she was…trying. As the synopsis hints, due to extenuating circumstances, Young-Hee and her mom and brother have to return to Korea from abroad without their father. They live in a dingy little apartment, her mother is constantly working, she is being bullied at school, and her brother is…annoying. Young-Hee is not a happy camper.

Then she finds an entrance to a place she called “Strange Land.” There the creatures that people the folklore of Korea (and dare I say other Asian countries) come to life. After making a series of bad decisions, Young-Hee manages to lose her brother to a goblin who tells her that if she manages to get a pullocho (some sort of divine ginseng plant) for him, he will let her brother go. It’s not like Young-Hee can leave her brother in the clutches of an evil goblin (a dokkebi) so off she goes on a journey to find a pullocho.

And what a journey it is. She is pursued by ghosts, meets a talking skull, rides a water dragon and rescues a boy in the cave who then accompanies her in her journey. She meets a talking tiger, is hosted by the gumiho and her sisters, and destroys a learned woman’s house. Her journey is fantastic and full of rich mythological creatures that come to vivid life under Russell’s pen.

I liked that even within this book there is diversity. A character called Bassam is introduced to remind readers of the richness of the entire world.

“But you aren’t from this realm?”

“That is true.”

“And you aren’t Korean?”

“Also true.”

“So…are you from the real world? From Earth, I mean.”

“There are no real worlds, young one. All our worlds, zamin and dastan alike, are but shadows of the truth…”

I also loved that each chapter ends with a little story, a folktale that is often elaborated upon or retold or alluded to in some way in the narrative itself. This technique gives texture to the narrative and adds a richness to the detail. It also connects Young-Hee’s story to the stories that are already in existence. A very neat way to make readers interested in folklore.

Young-Hee’s growth as a person is gradual and her maturing is satisfying to witness. She starts off annoying but reaches a stage where she makes her realizations about her world and the things important in it. Bum is a surprising character and I enjoyed the twist at the end.

If you want to add some magic to your reading list, I’d definitely recommend this title. Young-Hee and the Pullocho is a wonderful way to get students and children interested in the world outside their own. The book is ideal for literature studies and perfect for use in classes deal with cultural studies. Strongly recommended.