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Book Review: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (3/5). A story that confirms living in North Korea must be terrible.

22 Jul

I made it through my second ebook! I never thought I’d read ebooks, but having these on my phone for the spare minutes of my life has been nice. I’m already getting into another, shorter, title on my phone that will cover a missing period for my Historical Fiction challenge. But I digress.

Cover image via

Cover image via

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

Pak Jun Do lives at an orphanage, but he’s not an orphan. His father runs the orphanage but treats his son like the other boys, sending them to work during the day and sleeping on the ground at night. Escaping that life, Jun Do works in a prison mine where he learns to fight in the dark with such skill that he’s used to kidnap Japanese citizens off the beach at night. His military career develops to being an English-speaking spy and later traveling to Texas to retrieve something for the Dear Leader. When his team returns unsuccessfully, Jun Do is sent to prison again and he never emerges. At least, he doesn’t emerge as Jun Do, but as Commander Ga: husband of the most beautiful woman in Korea and a close adviser to the Dear Leader. He only has one goal; to get his new family out of North Korea and into safety.

This book had so much going on. Jun Do’s life was never stable, always changing location, job, loyalties, and goals. The story is told from several perspectives; Jun Do, later Commander Ga, the interrogator trying to figure out Commander Ga’s story, and the daily loudspeaker announcements telling the citizens about Commander Ga and the terrible ways he hurt the country. Despite all the voices, locations, and times of his life, this book worked. It worked really well and won the Pulitzer Prize.  It took me a while to get into this book, but I think it deserves the accolades and praise it’s received. Johnson gave a voice to a part of the world most of us ignore and know nothing about. I was really impressed with his subject matter.

It’s hard for me to know how accurately Johnson has portrayed life in North Korea because it’s not something I’ve been keeping up on in the news. From what I do know of it, Johnson’s portrayal met my expectations and exceeded them in details. I suspected these characters would be scared, vigilant of their words and actions. I loved how the characters wanted to fight back and oppose the Dear Leader and did so in their own little ways. These small acts together amount to almost nothing but keep hope alive in the hearts of the people. Their actions seemed logical to me; trying to stay in line just enough to be stay out of trouble, but trying to enjoy every aspect of life that’s denied to them.

Jun Do as Commander Ga was my favorite character. I loved the idea that he’d taken over someone else’s life and was hardly questioned. That he could win that life in a prison fight is so contrary to the confines of North Korean oppression that it made me cheer for someone who was a murderer. I’m not sure if this makes sense, but I was glad he killed Ga. I didn’t like Sun Moon’s character very much because she was so moody and whiny. I wanted Jun Do’s accomplishments to be more celebrated and respected and Sun Moon seemed very bitter toward someone who’d eliminated her despised husband.

Adam Johnson Image via the Stanford News website

Adam Johnson
Image via the Stanford News website

I loved Commander Ga’s desire to see his family to safety. His compassion was commendable. He fell in love with Sun Moon long before meeting her but still wanted to keep her and the children safe. He had compassion for the rowing American as well and did everything he could to keep her out of harm’s way. I could relate to his desire to see his family safely to America while sacrificing his own life. He was a great hero.

The ending was my favorite: when Ga sneaks Sun Moon and the children aboard the American plane. I loved the sacrifice involved and the entire set-up the Dear Leader had to convince the Americans that North Korea was functioning better than their own country. The idea of giving Americans aid for their hungry was funny because it was juxtaposed with the hunger Ga’s family endured despite being upper class. The Americans were nodding along, trying to get out of Pyongyang as quickly as possible and the whole situation was comical to me. It was a great way to end the book.

I found the beginning of the book harder to get through. Jun Do’s time as a spy got repetitive for me. Toward the end, I understood how important it was because so many of the things Johnson revealed about Jun Do in those parts played a roll  in the ending, but I think it could have been shortened. It made me reconsider reading the book early on.

I saw two major themes in this book. The first is sacrifice. Even though Jun Do has finally realized his dreams, he has to sacrifice that life for Sun Moon. I think it’s a beautiful message and I love his devotion to her. The second theme I see is that everyone can change their life even in the dimmest circumstances. In a country where it’s almost impossible to move above his station in life, Jun Do excelled through his intelligence, physical prowess, and loyalties. I’ll say it again, he makes a wonderful hero.

Writer’s Takeaway: Johnson used a lot of writing styles in this one book. I think it was a risk, but it really worked out. A lot of writers will use a variety of styles in a book. In Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell used chapters from Cath’s fanfics between her prose. Johnson’s short chapters of radio announcements reminded me of this. I think this style can be really effective as long as there is balance. Johnson focused his novel on the story and less on the retelling of it. Rowell did the same. I think this style takes some practice, but can add a lot to a story.

I thought the book was a bit wordy for it’s message, but it was beautifully written. Three out of five stars.

This book fulfills Foreign Country: North Korea for my Where Are You Reading? Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

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