Several months ago, I saw video footage on CNN where North Korean schoolchildren casually spoke of a historical event where their country had defeated the “American bastards.” These adolescents were lined up in starchy short-sleeved oxfords with navy blue shorts, speaking of their patriotism and their disgust for the United States.
It was personally hard to watch the video because it reminded me that any disagreement with that opinion would not be tolerated. I’m not going to go into a whole discussion on the good and bad the U.S. has done, but I feel lucky that I can freely criticize my country. Still. I’m curious to know more about what happens in North Korea, what daily life is like. And while reading Adam Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son, the news reported evidence of labor camps in North Korea.
The novel has already received high accolades including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The story follows Jun Do, a boy who grew up in an orphanage, but wasn’t an orphan. His jobs take him to sea, to prison camps, and into the presence of the Dear Leader.
Jun Do’s identity goes through many transformations as the story progresses. I found it interesting to title the book as his relation to his father. It’s not called Jun Do or Commander Ga, and I liked the choice to give it that title.
Personally, there was a powerful feeling in this novel that was reminiscent of Khaled Hosseini’s works. I would get immersed in the story and something powerful would happen that would make me cry.
To be clear, I am not saying that the novel portrays North Korea accurately; however, some observations made me stop and reflect. One person in the novel bragged about having used the internet 12 times in his life. While discussing what I was reading with my Japanese students, they informed me that they will sometimes hear about kidnappings in the news. I can’t honestly say that North Korea is still an unknown country to me, it gives me the chills when negative comments are confirmed.
This novel is a new experience for any avid reader. It’s harsh and powerful.