Book Review: The Color of Earth trilogy by Kim Dong Hwa

It’s because of my interest in Asian culture that I picked The Color of Earth up in the first place. I like graphic novels, but I don’t love them, it was both the reviews (which are very positive)  and the fact that the author’s Korean (Kim Dong Hwa) that convinced me to give this series a try. I fell in love with The Color of Earth almost immediately, and did the same with the subsequent books of the series.

The drawings are simple, they’re not quite the same style of manga that you might expect from an Asian artist. Nor are they in color, like the covers of the books. Instead, the reader (aka me) supplies the colors to the black and white drawings. What makes this possible is the fact that Kim Dong Hwa’s drawings are exceptionally elegant. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, after all. The story’s set in rural Korea and the main character is a young woman. I almost expected something completely different, since it’s a coming of age story about a girl and the author’s a man. But Kim’s story and drawings were just about perfect.

The story follows Ehwa and her mother. The Color of Earth begins with Ehwa as a young girl and follows her through her tweens (The Color of Water) as she approaches womanhood (The Color of Heaven). Kim’s story flows evenly throughout all three volumes and isn’t just limited to Ehwa’s story. There are several characters who appear in all three volumes, including Ehwa’s mother and the man she ultimately falls in love with, a young Monk who Ehwa befriends, as well as Ehwa’s best friend. All of the characters throughout the three volumes, including the villagers from Ehwa’s home and the people who eat at her mother’s restaurant, have several dimensions, even  though they may appear only briefly.

Ehwa’s life is not without conflict, both from her mother and other people in her life. She and her best friend don’t always see eye to eye and there’s a brief incident where an old man tries to buy Ehwa from her mother as his young wife (it’s both just as vile as you’d expect, and not nearly as disturbing, possibly because Kim’s writing/drawings are just that good). But at the heart of the story is Ehwa. We watch her grow from age seven (I think?) to her mid-teens (16/17, I believe). She gets her love story — and it’s a wonderful thread, especially in the last volume. Her mother also gets a love story and both come to satisfying conclusions at the end of the series.

But what I really loved about this series was the relationship between Ehwa and her mother. As someone who has a very up front relationship with her parents (and knows plenty of people who do not), it was refreshing to read a young adult book/series that in some ways mirrored my relationship with my parents. I can talk quite frankly with my parents about most things and Kim wrote Ehwa’s relationship with her mother the same. There might be incidents where Ehwa doesn’t want to talk to her mother, but eventually they figure each other out and Ehwa’s mother has no problems telling things as they are.

Recommend? Definitely. The story, the art and the translations are fantastic. If there’s a word/phrase that doesn’t translate well into English, usually there’s a footnote explaining what’s going on — which is quite helpful. This series is appropriate for teens and adults, as as well as more mature tweens. There is discussion/depictions of sex (it is a coming of age story, after all) as well as nudity, but it fits seamlessly into the context, and as always, Kim’s drawings are more art than anything else. Even if you don’t really like graphic novels, give The Color of Earth trilogy a try. It might not turn you into a fan, but you won’t regret the time you spent.