Adam Johnson

Citizens, here is an important message for everyone to hear. Run; do not walk, to your favorite bookstore, web site, or library, and buy, download, check out this most excellent book, The Orphan Master’s Son, written by Alan Johnson.  Tomorrow when your friend asks you who is Pak Jun Do, you will have your answer ready. If you have no answer, your friend will happily contact the authorities to let them know there is a problem with your radio. The Dear Leader will send someone to assist you.

The Orphan Master’s Son is gripping, suspenseful, exciting, a remarkable piece of writing. It is a novel that keeps you reading and then keeps you thinking about it long after you have finished. If you are very lucky, you will find someone else who has read it, and you can discuss it together. Yes, it is that good!

Jun Do is a resourceful boy who grew up in an “orphanage” in North Korea. His mother was taken away when he was an infant, and his father, the orphan master, raised his as one of the orphans under his charge. He even has an orphan’s name. All were named after Korean martyrs. Jun Do is a survivor who manages better than most to navigate the treacherous labyrinth that is life in North Korea. Because he is bright and a hard worker and obedient to his superiors, he rises to heights only dreamed about by most boys, especially those who carried the label of “orphan” which was generally a ticket to a life of deprivation and brutality. That is not to say that Jun Do did not experience his share of that…Oh, but the story is so good and so well written that I dare not give away one more piece of the plot. I would like, however, to share with you a small sampling of the writing.

On a diplomatic mission to the United States, Jun Do and the others are the guests of a US Senator at his Texas ranch. As he is shown to his very comfortable guest room, he is drawn to a group of pictures on the wall:

“The hallway was lined with photographs of the Senator’s family, always smiling. To move toward the kitchen was like going back in time…The occasions changed as did the dogs. But this was a family, start to finish, without wars or famines or political prisons, without a stranger coming to town to drown your daughter.”

Taking a walk in Pyongyang, Jun Do saw families stealing chestnuts in the park:

“…Once your eyes adjusted they were everywhere, families risking prison to steal nuts from public parks.”

One man’s first impression of Jun Do’s colleague, Commander Buc:

“We approached him and saw the vertical scar above his left eye. The wound had split the eyebrow in two, and it had healed so badly the halves of the brow missed each other. Who marries a woman who can’t sew?”

And one more:

“Eleven years I procured for these prisons. The uniforms come in children’s sizes, you know. I’ve ordered thousands of them. They even make a half-sized pickax. Do you have children?”

This is a horrifying story of people who are oppressed, cut off, lied to, and controlled. It is an unbelievable story of how a government can use propaganda to create a totally different reality and then force its citizens to live out that new reality without even a glimpse of the world outside their borders. And it is a story of love and the uncanny ability of a person to see beauty in the darkest places. It is the best book I have read in a very long time.

Please, read this book! After you have read it, you will want to talk about it to someone, and I will be here.