Maria Browning reviews To Kill a Tiger by Jid Lee in Chapter 16, the online book review home of the Tennessee Humanities Commission: "Jid Lee's To Kill a Tiger: A Memoir of Korea begins with a gruesome family myth told to six-year-old Lee by her grandmother. A beautiful, virtuous ancestor, so the story goes, was guaranteed the eternal good will of the gods toward all her descendants. There was one condition: that she let herself be eaten alive by a tiger. In the West such a tale would likely end with a last-minute reprieve or a miraculous escape from the tiger's belly—but in the Korea of Lee's childhood, happy endings weren't so simple. The story concludes with the ancestor's kin finding "one of her breasts, half-eaten, under a tall oak tree, and a hand with three fingers on the grass near the trail." But her descendants do happily prosper, at least until a less virtuous male of the family spoils the deal, and Lee's grandmother drives home the moral of the story: "Women in your clan have all been so brave and firm. They never hesitated to do anything for the good of the family, just like the tiger woman. They were warriors. You, my dear, are going to be a fighter, following them.
To Kill a Tiger is the story of how Lee did get out, eventually emigrating to the United States and becoming a professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. Beyond this narrative of liberation, it's the account of a young woman's attempt to resolve her feelings about a family that is loving and in many ways supportive of her dreams but also repressive, demeaning, and violent. Lee was born in South Korea in 1955, and as the subtitle suggests, her book is also a remembrance of that country in the decades after the post-WWII bifurcation, when memories of the North-South conflict between 1950 and 1953, as well as the Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945, were still fresh in the minds of Koreans.
The backdrop to Lee's troubled childhood is Korea's turbulent political history, which she describes in some depth—partly in order to explain her father's predicament and partly to present an alternative to the standard pro-American version of the country's history. Lee sees the U.S. as a bad actor in the Korean conflict, quashing a genuine democratic reform movement in the South and installing the rabidly anti-communist dictatorship that imprisoned and tortured her father. . .In the final chapter of the book, she writes of a dream in which she comes to realize that her image of America was an impossible ideal, "a place where everything was perfect and nothing could survive." Making peace with the reality of America's possibilities, she also acknowledges its flaws.
This reconciliation is mirrored in her relationship with her family and the culture that shaped it. During her years in America, Lee comes to see the many ways her family showed love for her, in spite of their harshness. She comes to appreciate her father's unyielding sense of principle, seeing that his example gave her the strength to challenge her traditional role. Speaking of her younger sister, who is a prominent Korean journalist, Lee says, "Two—not just one—very strong-minded feminists were born and raised in one relentlessly patriarchal family, and this ironic outcome proves to me what a great family it was." She has resolved the dilemma presented in her grandmother's story and defeated the tiger with courage, perseverance, and insight. It seems like a very Korean happy ending."