Book Review: The Orphan Master’s Son

A son of North Korea, named after the Revolutionary Martyrs, Pak Jun Do begins his life assisting his father at a work camp for orphans. His loyalty makes him a candidate for other dangerous jobs including being a tunnel soldier, kidnapping Japanese citizens, listening to encrypted military transmissions on the East Sea, and harassing a Texas senator. His goal is to survive and yet he finds himself inexplicably yearning for the affections of Sun Moon — the wife of a rival to Kim Jong Il. In a daring attempt to move away from the interests of the country, Pak Jun Do pursues a woman who is oblivious to oppression and cruelty.

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson acts as a window into an otherwise obscure place. The loud speakers, which become a character similar to the heath in The Return of the Native, provide the audio for the xenophobia, mercilessness, and nationalism that echo the intensity of Nazi Germany’s propaganda. In the midst of this systematic indoctrination, Johnson’s other characters must face a life where they are encouraged to trade compassion for duty.

Pak Jun Do and the people that surround him and influence his life all add their perspectives to a common need to shape their own narratives. This fascinating idea — that one can change their identity by what they claim to be instead of what they truly are — creates a world of false possibilities for those brave and foolish enough to aim outside of the expected.

Johnson’s book won a Pulitzer Prize, was a New York Times Bestseller, and was a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist. The honors were justly awarded, as this book is a tour de force of storytelling and entertainment.



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