Following his parents’ deaths, Martin Donaldson was left with no remaining family, and after a botched hip operation left him reliant on a walker, Martin moved to Osborne House for Retirees. Now eight-four and having lived in Osborne House for fifteen years, Martin is used to being alone with his memories, only making friends with a couple of the members of the staff. When one of the nurses retires, she is replaced by twenty-eight year old Kevin. Though Kevin’s goth style, make-up, piercings, and the fact that he is openly gay, are alien to Martin, the two swiftly form a close bond.
An untimely Christmas death at Osborne House then brings Eugene into Martin’s life. Eugene is an actor on Broadway, but he found fame as a spokesperson for a cosmetics company and though Martin is slightly intimidated by Eugene’s confidence in his smart suits and make up, they become friends.
Both Eugene and Kevin express a deeper interest in Martin, but he finds himself trapped in the memories of his one and only love, a man called Ji-Hoon, whom Martin met when stationed in Korea in 1953. Will a trip back to Korea over sixty years later with Martin’s two new friends give him the closure he needs?
Returning to the Land of the Morning Calm is an endearing story in which Hans M. Hirschi examines abiding love and the ramifications of living in a time where individuals were unable to freely choose their partners and had to keep their sexuality a secret. Hirschi chooses to guide his reader through Martin’s relationship with Ji-Hoon, punctuating the present narrative with Martin’s memories of Korea and Ji-Hoon in the 1950s. The clarity of this past narrative and the fact that it interrupts Martin’s daily life at Osborne House serves to substantiate the depth of Martin’s feelings for his male lover and the lengths that both Martin and Ji-Hoon would go to to meet.
The heart-breaking aspect of Returning to the Land of the Morning Calm for us, as readers, is that we know, in present day America, that Martin is alone. By addressing attitudes towards homosexuality in the 1950s, both in the US and Korea, and the issues that Martin faced as a black man in America at this time, Hirschi allows us to understand the stark reality that this relationship could never have continued. We may question why Martin did not return to the US with Ji-Hoon, but this is an answer Hirschi provides, including:
Of course I wanted to take Ji-Hoon back with me. But can you imagine a black soldier approaching his superiors about a visa for a Korean – a man at that? How would I have justified it? It’s not like Ji-Hoon was pregnant and we could’ve gotten married. Even then, there would have been no guarantee. The army didn’t have any issues with soldiers sowing their wild oats, you know, but marry those girls? That was frowned upon. Gay relationships? Not on the radar. And a black man with a Korean guy? I would’ve been dishonorably discharged and shipped back on the first transport out of Incheon.
I think the comparisons that Hirschi draws between Martin’s 1950s experiences of homophobia, Eugene’s in the 1960s, and then Joshua’s in the present day, are a clever addition. Eugene was allowed to be openly gay, even flamboyant, and wear make-up because of his job. Though this means that he now has money, his backstory is one that brought tears to my eyes. Eugene may have used sex on the ‘casting couch’ with consent, but he is now living with the affect of this. Eugene also briefly refers to the current #metoo movement and questions its focus solely on women, bringing his own experiences as an actor to a thought-provoking full-circle:
People just don’t realize the power some people have over others, emotionally and physically, especially in the liberal arts. We all know and talk about the women, but the way gay men have been preyed upon for as long has largely been kept mum. It’s a healthy sign that it’s finally changing, and that some of our younger colleagues are speaking up.
On the other hand, Joshua, Eugene’s nephew, has also suffered because of homophobia, this time from his parents, but because of the change in the law and a shift in public opinion, has been allowed to marry the man he loves and raise children. The pain of Joshua’s enforced estrangement from his own mother is clear, but in contrast, the fact that he is able to be publicly affectionate with his husband is a positive change and one that, currently, all people should continue fighting for the right to keep.
Returning to the Land of the Morning Calm is not only about love. The friendships Martin forms with Eugene and Kevin are equally significant and ultimately, give Martin the courage to entirety to Korea. Both Kevin and Eugene are warm, open, and caring, offering Martin their friendship and asking for nothing in return. I must admit that I was not a fan of the fact that both Kevin and Eugene showed an interest in Martin romantically; Kevin’s infatuation even disturbing me a little, but I hope that, on Hirschi’s part, this was more of a reflection of the person Martin is.
The novel is called Returning to the Land of the Morning Calm, but it is late into the book when the men travel to there. However, for me, I think the title has more to do with Martin’s heart and memories than it does with him bodily returning to Korea. Hirschi brings the country alive in his descriptions, which are a huge contrast to the war-torn Korea that Martin remembers. Though, as Martin points out, the effects of the war are now ingrained in the psyche of the people, rather than on the physical landscape. The latter part of the novel is touching and at times, difficult, as Martin struggles with the question of his own mortality. I did want more of the story and though slightly disappointed by the abrupt ending, after further thought, I know that Hirschi likes to be unconventional and let his reader’s imagination do some of the work!
Overall, Returning to the Land of the Morning Calm is another beautiful story by an author who has become a must-read for me. I would happily recommend this novel.