The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I read this riveting novel in just a few days. Here is a summary of about half a dozen conversations I had with people about it over those days:
Me: “I’m reading an amazing book right now”
Other: “Great, what’s it called?”
Me: “The Orphan Master’s Son”
Other: “Wow, interesting title – what is it about?”
Me: “Well, um, let’s see, it’s uh, um, it’s about North Korea.”
I just couldn’t put into words what it was about until a while after I read it. The first part especially just had me dumbfounded by its intensity and desolation. I couldn’t find the words.
Pak Jun Do is a young man who first lives in an orphanage but has convinced himself he is the son of the head of the orphanage and not just another orphan left behind when the parents have been denounced or otherwise packed away to work camps or prison. The orphans are named after the 114 North Korean heroes. Of course our protagonist’s name is very much like “John Doe “who has an exact identify, … It’s just yet to be discovered.” [p140]
In the first section Jun Do has a number of jobs: tunnel worker, kidnapper, and a listener on a fishing boat. In the second section he is Commander Ga. Through the story we see how it is possible to survive in North Korea: expect no freedom, love no one, accept the current reality as the only reality. When discussing his life with the Kim Jung Il “Ga thought about reminding the Dear Leader that they lived in a land where people had been trained to accept any reality presented to them. He considered sharing how there was only one penalty, the ultimate one, for questioning reality, how a citizen could fall into great jeopardy for simply noticing that realities had changed.” [p 418].
Through the course of events, Jun Do lands in Texas for a few hours and compares North Korean freedom with American freedom.
“How to explain that leaving its [North Korea’s] confines to sail upon the Sea of Japan – that was being free. Or that as a boy, sneaking from the smelter floor for an hour to run with the other boys in the slag heaps, even though there were guards everywhere because there were guards everywhere – that was the purest freedom. How to make someone understand that the scorch-water they made from the rice burned to the bottom of the pot tasted better than any Texas lemonade?
‘Are there labor camps here?’ he asked.
‘No’, she said.
‘Mandatory marriages, forced criticism sessions, loudspeakers?”
She shook her head.
‘Then I’m not sure I could ever feel free here,’ he said.”[p 153]
How will Jun Do/Commander Ga act when given a chance to gain freedom, to experience love?
Freedom, love, sacrifice; the biography and importance of the individual – that’s what this book is about.
I’ve now read three of the last four Pullitzer Prize winners for fiction (along with The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer. I loved those novels and this is every bit as good.
One thought on “Book Report: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson”
I’m now reading “Pacific” by Simon Winchester. Chapter 4 is about the dysfunction of North Korea. It corroborates Adam Johnson’s view and makes a great starting point before reading the novel.