Secret Agent Priya is poised to start shopping The Forgotten Girl around to publishers. She is armed with the pitch, which is goes like this:
The Forgotten Girl tells the true story of a young American woman who abruptly moves to Seoul, South Korea from Florida in 1988 to pursue an Olympic dream. Nancy is a recent college graduate and a national champion swimmer who qualified for the Olympic Trials in the 50-meter freestyle. But after a career-ending injury, she heads to the Summer Olympic Games in South Korea to teach instead of compete.
Nancy is eager to participate in the Olympics, albeit as a spectator, and to craft a post-swimmer persona. In South Korea, Nancy hopes to reinvent herself in the image of her globetrotting father. But immediately upon landing in Seoul, she begins to question her decision, surroundings and self.
South Korea is nothing like what Nancy expected. The country is just opening up to the West and has very little experience with Americans other than the Army soldiers who help protect the South from the North. Many young Koreans resent the American military presence in their city, and stage daily protests against “the imperialist barbarians.” Some of these protesters are enrolled at the private English Language School, ELI, where Nancy is employed, along with 24 other American teachers.
As Seoul prepares to host the Olympics, tensions mount between the city’s citizens and expatriates. Because of her swimming background, Nancy lands a freelance job covering the swimming and diving events for the Korea Herald, an English-language daily newspaper. Her work as a journalist gives her a front-row seat to the divides in Korea.
The antics surrounding the Olympics inflame anti-Americanism in Seoul. NBC’s biased coverage of South Korea’s traditions offends the Koreans. Meanwhile, Koreans are outraged by the behavior of Westerners, and especially the American swimmers, in their city.
The hostilities persist even after the Closing Ceremonies. Nancy and her American colleagues are barred entrance at Korean restaurants. They are spit upon and mocked in the streets.
One night, someone crosses the line into violence. The most beautiful and beloved American teacher at ELI is savagely murdered in her bed.
Who killed her? The Korean police believe the murderer must be an American. The Americans are certain the culprit is Korean. So much is lost in translation and culture discrepancies that the killer escapes unnoticed.
As it turns out, the murderer is an American woman—one of Nancy’s best friends. And because there is no extradition agreement between the United States and South Korea, she remains free to this day.
Haunted by these memories for 26 years, Nancy decides to return to Seoul. Over the course of five days in January 2014, she revisits the scene of the crime as well as the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.
By remembering a forgotten girl among the remains of the Forgotten War, Nancy finds out what else was lost in Seoul. Herself.
The Forgotten Girl is divided into two parts to reflect the landscape in which the story is set: the Korean Peninsula. Because of the author’s terrifying experiences there, she feels torn apart like the Koreas.
The first half of the book, called “THEN,” takes place in Seoul before, during and after the 1988 Summer Olympic Games. The second half, called “NOW,” takes place in the same locations over the course of five days in 2014.
Bisecting the two sections is a lone chapter called “No Man’s Land,” named for the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, but also representing the unresolved murder case.