November 2, 2016

The Orphan Master's Son [book]


We love to make fun of North Korea and Kim Jong Un. That haircut! He banned sarcasm! (He didn't, actually, but the fact that it seems plausible says something.) The more severe and outlandish the story, the more we roll our eyes at it.

But the fact is, we laugh at North Korea because the it keeps us from having to actually imagine what life must be like for its citizens. If we mock it, we won't have to deal with the uncomfortable truth that there are still hundreds of thousands of citizens suffering under a ruthless dictator and there is not much of anything we can or are willing to do about it.

Dad had better hair
This book rips off that comedic facade we hide behind and forces us to become intimately familiar with the oppressive day-to-day structure of North Korean life under Kim Jong Il (Though I assume it's basically the same under Kim Jong Un). Though technically fiction, Adam Johnson captures the spirit of the North Korean experience through the lens of his not-quite-orphaned hero, Jun Do. Through him, we experience actual historical events (like the kidnapping of foreign citizens) as well as sensationalized accounts of torture and the execution of elderly citizens. (But again, it still seems plausible.)

In making this book more of a "thriller," Johnson demands that we suspend our disbelief at some rather incredulous plot points, but he at least takes the time to try and explain how such unbelievable events could happen in this setting. Ultimately, however, what endures is the portrait he paints of the bleak and desperate life many live in North Korea, contrasted against the fact that they do not know any other alternative. If you didn't already know that North Korea was a real country that was this isolated from the rest of the world, you could easily be fooled into thinking this was a dystopian fantasy.

Historical fiction can often be too stilted in trying to capture too many facts, or infuriating because it plays fast and loose with too many details, but Johnson has struck a balance between crafting an original story while maintaining the integrity of his subject matter. So while the story arc of Jun Do may not have made a huge impact on me, the small details in the lives of the citizens around him will stay with me to serve as a reminder of the freedoms we often take for granted here in the US.

Final word: You'll never look at a can of peaches the same way again.

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