On Desperate Ground, the latest book from award-winning author Hampton Sides, shares a lot with his previous nonfiction hits: it tackles a war (the Korean one, in this case), tells a terrific story, and blends the perspectives of famous leaders and everyday troops. But one thing makes this book extra special, particularly for Cincinnati readers—a character (and Evendale resident) named Lee Bae-Suk.
“Lee’s story,” Sides says, “is a stand in for literally thousands of other Koreans on both sides of the 38th parallel.” While Lee grew up in North Korea, he fought alongside American forces. On Desperate Ground’s best scene describes Lee racing to help his baby sister escape to South Korea, even though that means pulling her away from her weeping cousins. “All he could think, as the Jeep rattled east toward the river, was how much he hated this war and the choices it forced people to make.”
After the war Lee became a radiologist and settled in Cincinnati. He and Sides met at a reunion for Korean War vets, and the author knew he had to visit. “I sat with him for two full days and heard his story, every inch of it,” Sides says. Lee’s story gives the book an on-the-ground counterpoint to the generals and politicians talking strategy. It also reminds readers that the war cost Koreans far more than it cost Americans.
All of that is possible thanks to the incredible life of Lee Bae-Suk. “I’m not sure he understands how important he is to the book,” Sides says. “He’ll find out soon enough.”