“Absorbing...Starry Field reminds us that even knowing where we came from won’t tell us where we’re going - but it will help along the way.” Susan Choi, National Book Award winning author of Trust Exercise
A poignant memoir for readers who love Pachinko and The Return by journalist Margaret Juhae Lee, who sets out on a search for her family’s history lost to the darkness of Korea’s colonial decades, and contends with the shockwaves of violence that followed them over four generations and across continents.
As a young girl growing up in Houston, Margaret Juhae Lee never heard about her grandfather, Lee Chul Ha. His history was lost in early twentieth-century Korea, and guarded by Margaret’s grandmother, who Chul Ha left widowed in 1936 with two young sons. To his surviving family, Lee Chul Ha was a criminal, and his granddaughter was determined to figure out why.
Starry Field: A Memoir of Lost History chronicles Chul Ha’s untold story. Combining investigative journalism, oral history, and archival research, Margaret reveals the truth about the grandfather she never knew. What she found is that Lee Chul Ha was not a source of shame; he was a student revolutionary imprisoned in 1929 for protesting the Japanese government’s colonization of Korea. He was a hero—and eventually honored as a Patriot of South Korea almost 60 years after his death.
But reclaiming her grandfather’s legacy, in the end, isn’t what Margaret finds the most valuable. It is through the series of three long-form interviews with her grandmother that Margaret finally finds a sense of recognition she’s been missing her entire life. A story of healing old wounds and the reputation of an extraordinary young man, Starry Field bridges the tales of two women, generations and oceans apart, who share the desire to build family in someplace called home.
Starry Field weaves together the stories of Margaret’s family against the backdrop of Korea’s tumultuous modern history, with a powerful question at its heart. Can we ever separate ourselves from our family’s past—and if the answer is yes, should we?
20 memorable photographs will be included.
About the Author
Margaret Juhae Lee is an Oakland-based writer and a former literary editor of The Nation magazine. She has been the recipient of a Bunting Fellowship from Harvard University, and a Korean Studies Fellowship from the Korean Foundation. She is also a Tin House scholar, and has been awarded residencies at the Mesa Refuge, the Anderson Center, and Mineral School. In 2020, she was named “Person of the Year” by the Sangcheol Cultural Welfare Foundation in Kongju, South Korea, for her work in honoring her grandfather, Patriot Lee Chul Ha. Her articles, reviews, and interviews have been published in The Nation, Newsday, Elle, ARTnews, The Advocate, The Progressive and The Rumpus.
"Engaging, intriguing...[Starry Field is] a poignant reclamation of a hidden history, leavened by a sense of personal growth and understanding.” -- Kirkus Reviews
“This reconstruction of the lives of Lee’s paternal grandparents is absorbing as much for what is discovered as for what remains undiscoverable. Almost three quarters of a century ago, on the eve of the invasion of her nation, a mother burned every trace she held of her children’s dead father, explaining to her son, “you never know what will happen: history is the proof.” Starry Field reminds us that even knowing where we came from won’t tell us where we’re going - but it will help along the way.” -- Susan Choi, National Book Award winning author of Trust Exercise
"With the propulsive force of a mystery, Margaret Juhae Lee guides us through the maze of her family’s lost histories, revealing secrets, shaping narratives, and, as she tracks into the past, pulling her present into sharp focus. Starry Field is a probing, companionable tale about the search for self and home by a fiercely observant, funny, and important writer." -- Sabina Murray, PEN/Faulkner-winning author of Valiant Gentlemen
"In this heartbreaking memoir, the power of a single, searing curiosity about an ancestor’s refusal to be silenced by colonial powers unlatches the lockbox to reveal a trove of long-buried family mysteries and reminds us of the courage it takes to strip away the scaffolding of our stories in the service of truth. Starry Field is memoir at its purest—the quest nested in the question becomes the story and the journey is one you don’t want to miss." -- Putsata Reang, award-winning author of Ma and Me: A Memoir
“Starry Field is a magnificent tapestry of memory, testimonial, and family history woven with a deft hand and abounding care. Lee's work is the most precious gift a writer has to offer.” —Joseph Han, author of Nuclear Family
“Clear-eyed and heartfelt, Starry Field is an important story from an urgent and necessary voice.” —Matthew Salesses, author of The Sense of Wonder
"Gorgeously written and meticulously researched, Starry Field is at once a detective story and an coming-of-age memoir. Lee shows us that the heroes in our family stories are not always who we think they are.” —Carol Smith, author of Crossing the River: Seven Stories That Saved My Life
“Deftly weaving extensive research with her own emotional journey, Lee resurrects the severed threads of her grandfather’s past. Starry Field is an act of devotion, a testament to how the present can be healed by addressing the ruptures of history.” —Tessa Hulls, author of Feeding Ghosts: A Graphic Memoir
A mesmerizing memoir, Margaret Juhae Lee’s Starry Field charts the course of her family’s storied past. With the propulsive narrative of a mystery novel, illuminated by meticulous research and captivating prose, Lee explores the love, loss, and resilience of hidden heritage and familial bonds. Gorgeously written and emotionally resonant, Starry Field is more than a memoir—it’s a celebration of the enduring strength found in unexpected places.
—Rose Andersen, author of The Heart and Other Monsters: A Memoir