Despite my feelings on ebooks, I had gotten a little bored one evening and decided to download this new app through our library for digital book releases. Had it not been for this little bout of mental wandering, I would have never come across The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. Since it has been out since 2012 and won a Pulitzer in 2013, it’s possible you have already read it. But on the off chance that you have not, this is my review of an incredible novel – even as an ebook.
Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother—a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang—and an influential father who runs a work camp for orphans. Superiors in the state soon recognize the boy’s loyalty and keen instincts. Considering himself “a humble citizen of the greatest nation in the world,” Jun Do rises in the ranks. He becomes a professional kidnapper who must navigate the shifting rules, arbitrary violence, and baffling demands of his Korean overlords in order to stay alive. Driven to the absolute limit of what any human being could endure, he boldly takes on the treacherous role of rival to Kim Jong Il in an attempt to save the woman he loves, Sun Moon, a legendary actress “so pure, she didn’t know what starving people looked like.”
There are two parts to The Orphan Master’s Son. Part 1 is called “The Biography of Jun Do” and Part 2, “The Confessions of Commander Ga”. The story has three narrators: The Loudspeaker (or propaganda story), Jun Do and the Interrogator. Part 1 details the story of Jun Do’s upbringing in a state orphanage and what it means to be an orphan in North Korea. It follows his life as he becomes a kidnapper, a fisherman and eventually a delegate to the United States. In this part of the book only Jun Do and the Loudspeaker (slowly telling the propaganda story of Sun Moon and Commander Ga) are present.
Part 2 is narrated by Jun Do, the Loudspeaker and a North Korean Interrogator who has taken the national hero Commander Ga into custody. It is like hearing two stories simultaneously being weaved together by 3 people. In the first part you learn that something has happened to Sun Moon and the second part slowly unravels the mystery. It also gives you a unique perspective on how the bizarre news stories that one hears come out of North Korea are created.
“Where we are from, he said, stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.”
Although a fictional piece of work, The Orphan Master’s Son does provide a rare glimpse into the true heart of the people and their surroundings in the DPRK. There is so much darkness and pain in this book that Adam Johnson somehow miraculously balances with a sort of dark comedy and a love story that reaches far beyond the Orwellian landscape. It is certainly not a story that you will forget after reading. It captured me for weeks in and I found myself reading articles and stories about North Korean defectors and their families.
“I wonder of what you must daily endure in America, having no government to protect you, no one to tell you what to do. Is it true you’re given no ration card, that you must find food for yourself? Is it true that you labor for no higher purpose than paper money? What is California, this place you come from? I have never seen a picture. What plays over the American loudspeakers, when is your curfew, what is taught at your child-rearing collectives? Where does a woman go with her children on Sunday afternoons, and if a woman loses her husband, how does she know the government will assign her a good replacement? With whom would she curry favor to ensure her children got the best Youth Troop leader?”
There is so much we don’t know about North Korea as it remains estranged to most of the world. The Orphan Master’s Son brings a kind of awareness that opens your eyes to the people there and how hard it is for them to escape to freedom, to reintegrate into society and so on. To give a very real idea of what being an orphan is like in North Korea, listen to a once-upon-a-time orphan boy who had lived in DPRK roughly during the same time as the fictional Jun Do.
If after reading you feel inclined to help, please take a look at Liberty in North Korea. You can read stories about people who have been rescued, record a message of hope to those who are waiting (or in hiding), and/or help to procure funds to assist in a rescue or resettlement.
“With fiction, I would suggest that there is a position at the table for trying to give a voice to the most voiceless people in the world. The literary endeavor, the humanist endeavor, is based on the premise that we’re all the same, and I believe that. When you talk to North Koreans or read their stories, you can be shocked by things they’ve seen in the famine or traumas they have been through, but what strikes me the most is how much we have in common. They want the same things: safety, security, a better future for their kids, self-definition, everything I want. So I think that a fiction writer can project humanity inward, based on the assumption they are just like us.” – Adam Johnson Interview with Washington Post
You can pick up The Orphan Master’s Son at your local library, on Amazon or (most likely) in any book store near you.
If you would like to follow along with my next Book Pick, I’m currently reading Being Mortal by Atul Gawande!