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The Evening Hero



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About The Book

A “moving and captivating” (Cathy Park Hong, New York Times bestselling author of Minor Feelings) novel following a Korean immigrant pursuing the American dream who must confront the secrets of the past or risk watching the world he’s worked so hard to build come crumbling down.

Dr. Yungman Kwak is in the twilight of his life. Every day for the last fifty years, he has brushed his teeth, slipped on his shoes, and headed to Horse Breath’s General Hospital, where, as an obstetrician, he treats the women and babies of the small rural Minnesota town he chose to call home.

This was the life he longed for. The so-called American dream. He immigrated from Korea after the Korean War, forced to leave his family, ancestors, village, and all that he knew behind. But his life is built on a lie. And one day, a letter arrives that threatens to expose it.

Yungman’s life is thrown into chaos—the hospital abruptly closes, his wife refuses to spend time with him, and his son is busy investing in a struggling health start-up. Yungman faces a choice—he must choose to hide his secret from his family and friends or confess and potentially lose all he’s built. He begins to question the very assumptions on which his life is built—the so-called American dream, with the abject failure of its healthcare system, patients and neighbors who perpetuate racism, a town flawed with infrastructure, and a history that doesn’t see him in it.

Toggling between the past and the present, Korea and America, Evening Hero is a “soulful, melodic, rhapsodic novel” (The New York Times) about a man looking back at his life and asking big questions about what is lost and what is gained when immigrants leave home for new shores.


Prologue Prologue
His name was Yungman.

The components of his name were, as custom dictated, selected by his paternal grandfather, just as his father’s had been selected by his grandfather, and so forth back to the origin of the clan. The grounding character “Yung”—“Hero”—cemented him to all his cousins (Yung-jo, Yung-ho, Yung-chun, Yungbok) in this twelfth generation of Kwaks, whether he knew them or not; “Man” meant “Evening.” “Evening Hero” would thus be carved into all the family trees on male Kwak headstones henceforth, chipped into his jade name-stick—his legal signature. Yungman’s place as first son was evident by contrast to his younger brother Yung-sik, “Vegetable Hero.”

To his patients, he was no Evening Hero but Dr. Kwak. A little Asian man (certainly short of stature, at 5'4"), the hospital’s obstetrician. He was distinctive to the white townspeople not just by being Asian but by being the first doctor from somewhere, anywhere, else. First North Korea, then South Korea. In America, a year first in Birmingham, Alabama, repeating his internship, as all foreign-trained physicians had to do.

And though he was a graduate of the “Harvard of Korea,” no hospital even bothered to reply to the American job search of this man from Asia, a region of the world America had decided it didn’t want and made laws to ban and expel. Yungman would end up so desperate for employment that he would drive straight north with his wife and infant child to this Arctic Circle of the US—the Iron Range of Minnesota—where winters were almost lightless, where schools closed for blizzards only when temperatures fell below minus fifty degrees.

Horse’s Breath, so named because the only way the early settlers (49ers who got lost on the way to California) could discern whether their horses were still alive that first winter was by checking for their breath, or alternatively, the name was a white man’s mangling of the Anishinaabe word ozhaawashkwaabika: the purplish undertone on the area’s rocks—signifying iron—which gave these speculators a reason to stay.

Towns in this area were spaced apart, individual stars in a constellation. A person from the next town over, Apple’s Gate, whose main characteristic to the Horse’s Breather was the unholy smell of rotten eggs from the paper plant, was a stranger. Movement between towns was rare.

Into Horse’s Breath’s mix of the descendants of the immigrants brought to work in the iron ore mines (Swedes, Norwegians, Finns, in that order; a Dane, three Icelanders, Slovakians, Slovenians, Serbians, Germans, Croatians, Poles, an Italian, and an Irish or two, and admixtures thereof) came Dr. Kwak, William (Will, I am) on his official documents; his Korean wife, Young-ae; and his Korean-ish son, Einstein.

About The Author

Photograph by Adrianne Mathiowetz

Marie Myung-Ok Lee is an acclaimed Korean American writer and author of the young adult novel Finding my Voice, thought to be one of the first contemporary-set Asian American YA novelsShe is one of a handful of American journalists who have been granted a visa to North Korea since the Korean War. She was the first Fulbright Scholar to Korea in creative writing and has received many honors for her work, including an O. Henry honorable mention, the Best Book Award from the Friends of American Writers, and a New York Foundation for the Arts fiction fellowship. Her stories and essays have been published in The AtlanticThe New York TimesSlateSalonGuernicaThe Paris ReviewThe Nation, and The Guardian, among others. Marie is a founder of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and teaches creative writing at Columbia. She lives in New York City with her family.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (May 16, 2023)
  • Length: 448 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476735085

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Raves and Reviews

“This precise, watchful novel reveals the loneliness of the immigrant experience, even when cloaked in outward success… a novel about healers and healing, about unflashy, quiet heroism…[with] lyrical, lush, deeply felt prose… a soulful, melodic, rhapsodic novel.”THE NEW YORK TIMES

“The novel also elucidates with remarkable feeling how war reverberates through a person’s lifetime—their body, mind, and memories—no matter how far in the past it may seem. This story is filled with as much heartache and healing as it is historical significance.” —KIRKUS REVIEWS

"An ambitious story charting the travails of an elderly immigrant doctor...Lee offers touching of immigrant stories will appreciate Lee’s labor of love."—PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

“Marie Myung-Ok Lee's The Evening Hero is a poignant story of a Korean immigrant father's heartbreaking belief in the myth of this country, capitalism, meritocracy and his disillusionment. By turns satirical and profound, The Evening Hero is a moving and captivating read.” —CATHY PARK HONG, New York Times bestselling author of Minor Feelings

"The Evening Hero is at once a hilarious, lacerating look at the American for-profit healthcare system and a profoundly moving examination of the long-term effects of war, trauma, and displacement on individuals, families, and cultures. I will never forget Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s evening hero, Dr. Yungman Kwak." —ANN PACKER, New York Times bestselling author of The Children’s Crusade

"The Evening Hero is an incredible achievement, a finely observed portrait of a man and the constant accrual of the past, the weight of family, of identity, of money, of home. Marie Myung-Ok Lee writes with such spirit and clarity, but it all resonates because of her skill with humor and the inevitable darkness brought on by the absurdity of the world. A brilliant book." —KEVIN WILSON, bestselling author of The Family Fang and Nothing to See Here

“Lee has created a poignant portrait of an aging immigrant doctor desperate to make sense of his history and find his place—within his marriage, his family, his community, his country. Filled with sharp insights into immigrant life and biting, satirical commentary on consumerism, this beautifully multi-layered novel will stay with me for a long time.” —ANGIE KIM, bestselling author of Miracle Creek

"A profound meditation on what happens to those of us who come to this country from elsewhere, what we gain and what we lose. Yungman is an indelible hero. Lee is a magnificent writer." —GARY SHTEYNGART, New York Times bestselling author of Little Failure

“The Evening Hero is a beautiful, lush, moving story of family, of Korean and American history, of the legacy of war, and of the trauma of displacement. With great wit and humanity, it skewers the medical-industrial complex and the deep inequity of contemporary America. But most of all this novel is a tender, complex, vivid portrait of Yungman, the indelible Evening Hero.” —DANA SPIOTTA, author of Wayward, Innocents and Others, and Eat the Document

"Heartfelt and keenly observed, The Evening Hero casts an urgent and insightful gaze on lived identity, positioned precariously at the intersection of past and future, homeland and adopted home." —ALEXANDRA KLEEMAN, author of Something New Under the Sun

"Astonishing line by line but also in the brilliant symmetry and epic sweep of the storytelling. Yungman's life has been torn in half by war, just as his home country Korea has been torn in half by war. Our Evening Hero's journey will entail trying to heal the invisible wounds of war and to make his life whole. Elegiac, fiercely intelligent, historically astute, full of hard won emotional truths and pathos, this book is a mesmerizing investigation into the mysteries of the human heart." —GABE HUDSON, author of Gork, the Teenage Dragon

The Evening Hero rewards its readers threefold: it opens the world of Koreans and Korean Americans, it raises larges questions, and is a genuine page turner.” —MARY GORDON, author of Final Payments and Payback

“This is a tender and shrewdly comic look at immigrant life, family, and how our past informs the future.” —REAL SIMPLE

“Lee’s writing shines is in the details, as she flexes her creative muscles to fill Yungman’s story with historical accuracy and a true-to-life depiction of the depth of humanity. Wholesome and engaging overall, The Evening Hero ultimately results in a captivating tale of human struggle and survival.” —BOOKLIST

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