Boy coming-of-age stories are a dime a dozen. Half the shonen series out there are about 8-14 year old boys striking out on their own and finding their way, often with a pet dog (or dragon, or Pikachu) as their companion. Girl coming-of-age stories, however are a little harder to find. This is especially true in the manga world. They're usually less action-packed than the boys', and more slow-paced and reflective. When one does come out, however, it's a treat to read, and that's what is found in The Color of Earth by Kim Dong Hwa.
The setting is rural Korea, but the era is a little harder to pin down. A steam engine train is seen near the end of the story, and it isn't seen as a novel technology. There doesn't seem to be electricity or running water, but I'm not sure when that level of infrastructure reached all areas of Korea.
We meet Ehwa at 7 years old. She lives with her mother, a widow who runs a tavern near a small town. Life is hard for a single woman trying to raise a girl, but she is proud of taking care of things by herself. We never really learn much about Ehwa's father, but we assume he died when Ehwa was very young.
Though Ehwa often stays close to her mother during the say, she also does go off either by herself or with other girls from town. It seems like the town kids aren't raised quite as well as Ehwa though, and she gets into a bit of mischeif above her age with them. It also might be because she's an only child, but she is a lot more innocent than the other children we meet. As she grows up, of course, she starts to notice boys, though in a fairly age-appropriate way.
Mirroring this blossoming of Ehwa, a traveling salesman stops by the tavern and seeks a place to stay for the night. As the years pass, the salesman and artist comes by on his travels, and he and Ehwa's mother become closer.
This first book of “The Story of Life on the Golden Fields” trilogy spans several years, from the time Ehwa is a young girl, to when she is becoming a young woman. Girls in more rural settings do tend to seek out marriage earlier, but of course she is still very close to her mother and is in no rush to leave her.
This book is certainly a slow, contemplative journey. Ehwa grows up, goes through the awkward first interactions with boys, and learns that it's hard to control who you love. It's nice to see growing up handled in such an honest way, and it would do girls everywhere a service if there were more authors like Kim Dong Hwa writing today.
Highs: Gorgeous backgrounds with honest storytelling
Lows: Pacing is at times perhaps too slow for the usual manga reader
Verdict: Not to be missed
Further Reading: Moribito, The House of Many Ways