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Orphan Masters Son by Adam Johnson

Orphan Masters Son (original 2012; edition 2012)

by Adam Johnson

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,8161843,851 (4.05)273
Title:Orphan Masters Son
Authors:Adam Johnson
Info:Random House Export (2012), Paperback, 416 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:North Korea, Pak Jun Do, defection, orphan

Work details

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson (2012)

  1. 80
    Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick (kqueue)
    kqueue: A non-fiction account of people in North Korea. The hardships they endure at the hands of their government are jaw-dropping. It backs up everything in The Orphan Master's Son.
  2. 10
    The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters by B. R. Myers (bibliothequaire)
  3. 10
    Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle (Henrik_Madsen)
    Henrik_Madsen: Guy Delisle has based his graphic novel on his own experiences from North Korea - it is definitely also worth a read.
  4. 00
    Sons of Heaven by Terrence Cheng (booklove2)
    booklove2: Main characters have similar personalities, also they both battle regimes.
  5. 00
    The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell (Anonymous user)
  6. 00
    Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (aethercowboy)
  7. 01
    Number9Dream by David Mitchell (clfisha)
    clfisha: OK not really alike except in tone. A rollicking good adventure and playful narrative structure (Mitchell is more experimental).
  8. 13
    The Cider House Rules by John Irving (suniru)
    suniru: Although the settings are wildly different,the central figure in both books is the "head boy" in an orphanage. Also, "identity" is central to both books.

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Showing 1-5 of 181 (next | show all)
How accurate a representation of North Korean society it is, I don't know; although I would guess its general absurdity and violence is pretty spot-on. It doesn't matter, though; it can be read as a dystopian novel about the usual themes, identity and freedom and their comingling. The writing is excellent and the characters are very memorable. 4.5 stars, almost. ( )
  Michael.Xolotl | Nov 11, 2015 |
A prodigious creative imagination put together this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Few Americans have visited North Korea in recent decades; if they have, they’ve seen little other than what their minders are authorized to show them, and they’ve talked with no one outside their official itinerary. We cannot “see for ourselves” what living in such a massively regulated, brutal nation is like. In such a circumstance, it’s daunting to create a fully developed world, and it would be easy to create fictional characters who are two-dimensional, stereotypic. But Johnson has created such a world and peopled his book with true individuals who act believably, even when what they must do is unbelievably horrifying.
While the reader acquires a bone-chilling sense of North Korean life and how survival requires quick wits and artful deception, in no way does this novel feel like a political tract. What the reader comes to understand are the daily accommodations of action and speech and even thought that the system under Kim Jong Un, the Dear Leader, requires.
The first third of the book is about Jun Do (John Doe), the orphan master’s son who declares he is not an orphan. At various points, Jun Do has chances to escape, to defect to South Korea, to abandon ship in Japan, to hide out in the United States, but he doesn’t take them, in part because of the danger such an action would create for his companions and because (speaking of South Korea) “he was scared that if he saw it with his own eyes, his entire life would mean nothing. Stealing turnips from an old man who’d gone blind from hunger? That would have been for nothing. Sending another boy instead of himself to clean vats at the paint factory? For nothing.”
Yet the book is rich in both love and humor. Seeing Jun Do cope with the disconnect between reality and the government’s constant diet of lies can be simultaneously amusing and heart-breaking.
In the second part of the book, the narration alternates among several sources, and includes this story told by a young interrogator of political prisoners:
There is a talk that every father has with his son in which he brings the child to understand that there are ways we must act, things we must say, but inside, we are still us, we are family. I was eight when my father had this talk with me . . . [After denouncing the boy in a terrifying way] . . [m]y father said, “See, my mouth said that, but my hand, my hand was holding yours. If . . . someday you must say something like that to me, I will know it’s not really you. That’s inside. Inside is where the son and the father will always be holding hands.”
Some chapters of this section are told via the official and ubiquitous government loudspeakers, which blare constantly in homes, factories, and public places. The extent to which the population is taken in by these jingoistic broadcasts is unclear, since cracks in the façade of total loyalty to the Dear Leader are dangerous.
Regarding the relentless suffering, one character says, “When the Dear Leader wanted you to lose more, he gave you more to lose.” He gave Jun Do love in the person of actress Sun Moon, and contrary to the Dear Leader’s expectation, love saved them both.
Despite all the paranoia, torture, starvation, slave labor camps, and dark and dripping prison cells, incredibly, I found this beautifully written novel uplifting; it engenders the feeling that the North Koreans will ultimately free themselves from their repressive government because the burden of believing in it will become too great. ( )
  Vicki_Weisfeld | Nov 3, 2015 |
North Korea.
Amazon: Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother—a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang—and an influential father who runs a work camp for orphans. Superiors in the state soon recognize the boy’s loyalty and keen instincts. Considering himself “a humble citizen of the greatest nation in the world,” Jun Do rises in the ranks. He becomes a professional kidnapper who must navigate the shifting rules, arbitrary violence, and baffling demands of his Korean overlords in order to stay alive. Driven to the absolute limit of what any human being could endure, he boldly takes on the treacherous role of rival to Kim Jong Il in an attempt to save the woman he loves, Sun Moon, a legendary actress “so pure, she didn’t know what starving people looked like.” ( )
  clifforddham | Oct 10, 2015 |
Set in North Korea during the rule of Kim Jong-il, this novel by Adam Johnson is crazy good. Johnson’s research including reading firsthand testimony from defectors and travel to North Korea. He wove this background material into a very dark but weirdly comic story. There’s some very serious writing about repression mixed in with some magic realism and even a love story. Unforgettable characters and superior writing - highly recommended for readers of Vonnegut and Orwell. Looking forward to reading more from this talented writer. ( )
  KatyBee | Aug 22, 2015 |
I really wanted to like this book, mentioned on several "best of 2012" lists. It did give me an insight into life in North Korea, which is part of the reason I originally decided to read it. The author did extensive research on North Korea, including interviews with defectors and personal visits to the country, so I felt he was more than qualified to write about the power of propaganda to shape a country and its people. Kim Il Sung, the "dear leader" of North Korea died not long after this novel was published. After reading about 300 pages of this over 400-page novel, I finally gave up. Consequently I did not give the book a rating but felt justified adding it to GoodReads because of the 300 pages!
  TheresaCIncinnati | Aug 17, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 181 (next | show all)
"Readers who enjoy a fast-paced political thriller will welcome this wild ride through the amazingly conflicted world that exists within the heavily guarded confines of North Korea. Highly recommended. "
added by Christa_Josh | editLibrary Journal, Susanne Wells (Nov 1, 2011)

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Powers, RichardAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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my sun,
my moon,
my star and,
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Citizens, gather 'round your loudspeakers, for we bring important updates!
The darkness inside your head is something your imagination fills with stories that have nothing to do with the real darkness around you.
Compared to forgetting, did living really stand a chance?
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
An epic novel and a thrilling literary discovery, The Orphan Master’s Son follows a young man’s journey through the icy waters, dark tunnels, and eerie spy chambers of the world’s most mysterious dictatorship, North Korea.

Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother—a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang—and an influential father who runs Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. There the boy is given his first taste of power, picking which orphans eat first and which will be lent out for manual labor. Recognized for his loyalty and keen instincts, Jun Do comes to the attention of superiors in the state, rises in the ranks, and starts on a road from which there will be no return.

Part breathless thriller, part story of innocence lost, part story of romantic love, The Orphan Master’s Son is also a riveting portrait of a world heretofore hidden from view: a North Korea rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love. A towering literary achievement, The Orphan Master’s Son ushers Adam Johnson into the small group of today’s greatest writers.
Haiku summary
Disturbing account
Of North Korea under
Kim Jong-Il. Tough stuff.

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0812992792, Hardcover)

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, January 2012

Adam Johnson on The Orphan Master's Son

When I arrived at Pyongyang's Sunan Airport a few years ago, my head was still spinning from a landing on a runway lined with cattle, electric fences and the fuselages of other jets whose landings hadn't gone so well. Even though I'd spent three years writing and researching The Orphan Master's Son, I was unprepared for what I was about to encounter in “the most glorious nation in the world.”

I'd started writing about North Korea because of a fascination with propaganda and the way it prescribes an official narrative to an entire people. In Pyongyang, that narrative begins with the founding of a glorious nation under the fatherly guidance of Kim Il Sung, is followed by years of industry and sacrifice among its citizenry, so that when Kim Jong Il comes to power, all is strength, happiness and prosperity. It didn't matter that the story was a complete fiction--every citizen was forced to become a character whose motivations, desires and fears were dictated by this script. The labor camps were filled with those who hadn't played their parts, who'd spoken of deprivation instead of plenitude and the purest democracy.

When I visited places like Pyongyang, Kaesong City, Panmunjom and Myohyangsan, I understood that a genuine interaction with a North Korean citizen was unlikely, since contact with foreigners was illegal. As I walked the streets, not one person would risk a glance, a smile, even a pause in their daily routine. In the Puhung Metro Station, I wondered what happened to personal desires when they came into conflict with a national story. Was it possible to retain a personal identity in such conditions, and under what circumstances would a person reveal his or her true nature? These mysteries--of subsumed selves, of hidden lives, of rewritten longings--are the fuel of novels, and I felt a powerful desire to help reveal what a dynastic dictatorship had forced these people to conceal.

Of course, I could only speculate on those lives, filling the voids with research and imagination. Back home, I continued to read books and seek out personal accounts. Testimonies of gulag survivors like Kang Chol Hwan proved invaluable. But I found that most scholarship on the DPRK was dedicated to military, political and economic theory. Fewer were the books that focused directly on the people who daily endured such circumstances. Rarer were the narratives that tallied the personal cost of hidden emotions, abandoned relationships, forgotten identities. These stories I felt a personal duty to tell. Traveling to North Korea filled me with a sense that every person there, from the lowliest laborer to military leaders, had to surrender a rich private life in order to enact one pre-written by the Party. To capture this on the page, I created characters across all levels of society, from the orphan soldier to the Party leaders. And since Kim Jong Il had written the script for all of North Korea, my novel didn't make sense without writing his role as well.

Featured Photographs

Anti-tank devices seen while traveling south from Pyongyang toward Panmunj
  DPRK soldier
  Air raid sirens
  Revelutionary Martyr's Cemetery on Mount Taesong

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:15 -0400)

(see all 7 descriptions)

The son of an influential father who runs an orphan work camp, Pak Jun Do rises to prominence using instinctive talents and eventually becomes a professional kidnapper and romantic rival to Kim Jong Il.

(summary from another edition)

» see all 7 descriptions

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