Jeffrey Miller stands in front of a memorial in Massacre Valley, Hoengseong, Gangwon Province, a battle site of the Korean War (1950-53). Most of the battle scenes in Miller’s novel “War Remains” take place here. / Courtesy of Jeffrey Miller
English teacher pens book on Korean War (1950-53)
By Ines Min
“It’s never been a forgotten one for me; not with the lead I still carry in my body.”
Exactly what has or has not been lost in the dredges of time is the Korean War (1950-53). Sixty years later, the battle scenes may not be as visceral for most of us as carrying shrapnel in our flesh — but it remains tangible, emotional and wholly real for many on the peninsula.
Jeffrey Miller, an English teacher at Woosong University in Daejeon, uncovers the horrors of war in his debut novel released late last month, providing an insight into the torrid time.
“War Remains” follows the tale of Bobby Washkowiak and his grandson Michael, who explores the past in order to find out exactly what happened the day his grandfather went missing.
Alternating from present day to wartime past, the novel unfolds through pulsating battle scenes, personal vignettes and quiet introspection, making use of jumping perspectives in order to create an intimate tale of loyalty, love and livelihood.
Miller, 52, first arrived in Korea 20 years ago from Illinois to teach English, hardly knowing anything about the country. Although he’d had uncles who served in the Korean War, a natural stoicism about the events staved any discussion about what combat was like.
“I think for a lot of Americans, it’s sort of in our collective amnesia,” Miller told The Korea Times over a phone interview, Thursday. “I think a lot of people when they come to Korea... they don’t know much about the Korean War; it was not a part of our background when we were growing up.”
Happenstance and curiosity led the teacher to research more, which then led to opportunities to meet actual veterans and contribute to local English papers such as The Korea Times. From there, he developed a passion and empathy for those who experienced the war.
“As a journalist to have a chance to go to all these events, that’s when I really discovered a forgotten war,” he said. “These (veterans) were just ordinary men who were thrust into extraordinary circumstances.”
“They were just talking about the war, and to see these men in their 70s and 80s, eyes welling up with tears as they recalled their buddies, was very overwhelming. I think a lot of that eventually drove me to write the novel, to honor those men that I had the honor to meet.”
Through research, personal interviews and extensive reading, Miller was able to piece together scene by scene some of the most tragic moments of the war. While oftentimes accolades will go to the better-known Heartbreak Ridge or Battle of Inchon, the author instead focuses on Massacre Valley in Hoengseong, Gangwon Province. The site was the setting for one of the most costly battles for the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division that took place in 1951.
A tale of serendipity and tragedy, the historical fiction bounces from the story of soldier Bobby Washkowiak in the field and his grandson Michael’s intensive search to find the truth of how the events unfolded. Leaving no room for anachronism, Miller even uses the old Romanization of Korean words, in keeping with what the war veterans are most familiar with.
While Michael’s path parallels that of Miller’s, the reader is also taken along on a journey.
“The Korean War is still resonating today within politics on the peninsula with the same players as 60 years ago,” Miller said, referring to China, North Korea and the United States. “I think people need to remember the war.”
While there may not be anything new to add to the history buff’s reserve of knowledge, the novel strikes a chord for anyone who has seen a loved one serve in the military.
Suspense builds in the style of a film (Miller was originally envisioning the story as a movie) with plot devices coming full circle and dialogue unfurled in short, barked clips during the height of fighting. Though the modern parts of the book can be tinged with overly detailed banalities, the novel shines when it is bursting forward onto enemy ground, recreating the past for everything it fights for — especially the future.
“War Remains” is available in print and ebook. For more information, visit www.lulu.com/spotlight/PapaSparks.