Book Flash: THE ORPHAN MASTER'S SON by Adam Johnson

Posted on April 07, 2014 by Katherine Ruch

In keeping with my intentions to extol good story, I will try to recommend books on a somewhat regular basis.  This is my favorite fiction of the year:

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The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

This book is set in North Korea and has as its main character Jun Do (John Doe--your Everyman).  Jun Do is a puppet of the state, taking up any role assigned him, including horrible kidnappings.  At some point, he desires to assert his own personhood and begins to love, which eventually leads to sacrifice that costs him everything.  That is, however, what finally makes him a true man rather than a shadow of one.  This book is beautifully written and haunting. 


The author much deserved the Pulitzer Prize he won for this book, and you can find interviews with him that elucidate his extensive research for this book, and why he chose the genre of fiction.  Here is one of his comments:


"If literature is a fiction that tells a deeper truth, I feel my book is a very accurate portrayal of how the tenets of totalitarianism eat away at the things that make us human:  freedom, art, choice, identity, expression, love."


This book paints a horrifying picture of North Korea--a country for which we have little information.  The reader should be warned that this book is raw when it comes to its details about tortures and descriptions about the labor camps.  Johnson stated in an interview that he had to soften some of the facts because the truths were so much worse.  The narrative of the State that is piped in via loudspeaker to every home is the story that defines and shapes persons and ultimately dismantles family, friendship, and community of any kind, challenging any loyalty other than the loyalty to the Dear Leader--Kim Jong Il (the Orphan Master?)  Some good humor emerges in the diplomatic trip that Jun Do and the other emissaries take to America, in which they are hosted at a Texas Ranch.  This only serves to highlight the disconnection that North Korea has from the rest of the world and perhaps how little the rest of the world understands their insular culture.


I was deeply moved by this book.   I have been interested in North Korea partly because it is the most violent and aggressive government in its persecution of Christians. To see how a people can become complicit with the dismantling of their own culture, community, and personhood by submission to a manipulative narrative that defines reality for them, was like a warning to all of us in the free world.  To see, then, the power of the choice to turn away from that narrative and try to discern truth and live in love was powerful.  In the end,  self-sacrifice was the greatest emancipation.  Johnson's scope spans a culture and country but also the inner workings of a human heart.


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