Marie Myung-Ok Lee's sweeping novel, "The Evening Hero," opens with a depiction of an eventful day for Dr. Yungman Kwak, who for decades has delivered the babies of Horse's Breath, a small town on the Iron Range of Minnesota populated by the descendants of Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish immigrants. Yungman is a good man, but perhaps has never lived up to his bold Korean name — "Evening Hero."
The town's iron ore mine is long closed, but the community hospital still bustles. However, it's not profitable enough to satisfy SANUS, the corporate medicine outfit that gobbled it. When SANUS first took over, "Yungman had thought SANUS was some early medical philosopher like Hippocrates." SANUS decides to close the hospital, pushing Kwak into early retirement, and forcing Horse's Breath's citizens seeking emergency medical care to drive 70 miles to Duluth.
With comic flair, Lee follows her endearing, 5-foot-4 protagonist — who economizes by purchasing decommissioned police cars at the sheriff's auction and who is so empathetic "he often became crampy himself when it was time to push" — as he embarks on a late-in-life awakening about his purpose and the secrets he carries from the Korean War.
While Yungman reels from the hospital's closing, his wife, Young-ae, channels her dissatisfaction into church involvement, and their son Einstein, a Harvard-educated physician, convinces Yungman to work for a retail medicine startup at the Mall of America in the Twin Cities.
Lee writes that Yungman's "professional method was to find some way to agree even when the other person was wrong. His life here depended on his being agreeable, never making anyone mad." But his easygoing attitude has led him to tolerate mistreatment and hide details of his past, and pressures build for him to take revelatory action.
When those secrets catch up with Yungman, Lee transitions seamlessly from a satirical look at America's "failing health care system" to the vivid story of the doctor's life in Korea before the war. His family members become refugees as officials place his small town within the boundaries of North Korea. As his grandfather says, "wars do not start, they come."
Throughout the tumult, during which his family is starved, split and scattered, Yungman stays focused on his parents' dream that he be educated, even if that means he has to sneak into classes because he can't afford school fees.
Lee illustrates how the turmoil of war occasions desperate choices as each person struggles to stay alive, and how those who survive forever endure guilt about their decisions. Lee notes that the Korean War never officially ended, and this novel also demonstrates how war never stops for those who are lashed by it. "Wars are ongoing," she writes, "like underground fires, even if you can't see them."
"The Evening Hero" is a book about one man's steadfast devotion to his job, family and community, even when his dedication is unrequited. With heart, humor and authentic detail, Lee shows how the most outwardly unassuming people can harbor epic histories.
Jenny Shank's story collection, "Mixed Company," won the George Garrett Fiction Prize and is a finalist for the Colorado Book Award, and her novel, "The Ringer," won the High Plains Book Award.
The Evening Hero
By: Marie Myung-Ok Lee.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 432 pages, $28.99.