The Orphan Master's Son

The Orphan Master's Son

by Adam Johnson

Overview: 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.”

Gail Reid (01/23/15): Other reviewers have done a fine job of summarizing the plot. The Orphan Master's Son gives us a glimpse into the culture and thinking of North Korea, something Americans have no access to. The book is masterful in many ways: author Adam Johnson works with mystery, intrigue, story-telling, romance and the power of propaganda. There are times when you will question the truth and times you will be appalled by the inhumane treatment. But, if you read this book - dark as it may come across -- you will have the experience of reading a novel quite different from any other.
Rating: *****

Ricki Brodie (05/06/13): Adam Johnson deserved the Pulitzer for The Orphan Master’s Son. We view the story through Jun Do (John Doe), a character that takes us on his journey from an orphanage, fighting in the dark tunnels under the DMZ, to being a radio surveillance operator on a fishing boat getting a tattoo of North Korea’s famous actress, to America where he meets a Senator and a CIA operative and back to North Korea with a new identity as a replacement husband not initially understanding love, hope and freedom. The orphan master, is it either his literal father or North Korea, is a hard taskmaster in this totalitarian nation where the threat of violence, torture, imprisonment and disappearing is always around. Country before self is dominant; propaganda is rampant; fear is everywhere. We see the harshness of Kim Jong Il and his regime juxtaposed against glimpses of humanity. The author showed us that it possible to retain one’s own identity and take fate into one’s own hand.

The book has three narrators. There is a third person providing the background of Jun Do is Part I in addition to the propaganda broadcasted by loudspeaker to all citizens all day long telling the “beautiful” story of a national hero, Commander Ga, whose story is “told” in Past II, married to the famous actress and the first person account of the benevolent interrogator who writes the biographies of the accused before wiping their brains trying to understand why people did what they did. While there are many tense scenes in this coming-of-age, romantic, adventurous political thriller and as harsh as some of the violence is, it is a page turner.
Rating: *****

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