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The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee

The Girl with Seven Names (2015)

by Hyeonseo Lee, David John

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3602345,133 (4.21)27



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Showing 1-5 of 21 (next | show all)
I really enjoyed this memoir about a North Korean woman's life growing up near the Chinese border in North Korea, her accidental turned determined escape from the country of her birth and the sometimes harrowing journey along the way. I was struck by the strength of the women in this story, and how the street smarts and superstitions they developed by growing up in a dictatorial regime ruled by propaganda was able to get them out of many difficult moments, but at the same time, their naivete of the outside world from growing up in that environment, got them into just as many life-altering situations.

The chapters in this book are very short, but serve well to keep the story moving. Many of us can relate to feeling like we have lived different lives in our lifetime - that we were different people before/after a certain event in our lives. In each of these life-changing events, the author also changes her name - or it is changed for her. There is something comforting about that, that your past doesn't follow you around, but also something startling and lonely about it as well.

This memoir reminded me a lot about Malala Yousafzai's memoir. I feel like I learned a lot about Pakistan, Afghanistan, and ISIS that many Americans wouldn't otherwise know, and that this knowledge comes from reading someone's experiences in their home country. Malala's experience growing up in Pakistan is looked back on fondly, but I imagine other girls who didn't have educated parents, a father who cared about his daughter as much as his son, the relative wealth and security, or the opportunities she had would remember their youth and their country very differently. I felt the same with [The Girl with Seven Names]. I feel like I learned so much about North Korea, but if I read a different memoir from someone who also grew up there I think it might have some similarities and very many differences. Many times in this memoir we experience Hyeonseo's shock that classmates of hers don't have any food in their cupboards or any spending money for treats, yet she doesn't understand why their lives would be different from her more privileged one. During the famine, when she travels by train to other cities and sees people emaciated and dressed in rags, then she travels to Pyongyang and sees the well-fed people and comparable opulence of the capital, I felt like this scene was the basis for the Hunger Games - with different provinces suffering to various degrees while the well-regarded loyalists in the capital remain blissfully unaware or uncaring of the suffering of their fellow citizens.

I highly recommend this memoir. As an easy read, it is acceptable for teens to adults. This would also be a great book club selection. ( )
  originalslicey | Jan 21, 2019 |
This is the true story of the author's life in North Korea and how she defected from a country that is trapped with a brutal communist leader. She lives near the border of China and dreams of crossing to a better life.

One night, when things have gotten so bad for her family, she makes the escape to China. The family has friends right across the border (smuggling trade was big where she lived in North Korea) and they agree to help her make safe passage. She has relatives in China, and she convinces her friends across the border to take her to them. The relatives had no idea she was coming, but welcomed the 17 year old and agree to hide her. She spends her days, weeks, months with her relatives learning Mandarin and hiding the fact that she escaped from North Korea.

Before she knows it, 2 years have passed and she feels that she has overstayed her welcome. She makes plans to get a job, and get her own place in China and leaves her relatives safety. She spends a decade in China hiding in plain site.

Homesickness, and worry about her mother and her younger brother make her realize that somehow she must return home. She meets a man that is from South Korea and he agrees to help her get her family to safety. With skill and perserverance she makes her way and starts the plan to move her mother and brother to the south. It takes many months to get her mother and brother to safety after convincing her mother she had to leave.

This was a great book. It gives you a good insight to what it is like for those living in North Korea. This book covers the 1990's and early 2000's - not that far in the past to imagine that this is going on now in this country. The citizens are trapped in a dictatorship and fear for their lives on a daily basis. One mis step could mean execution without a trial.

What she went through to escape, and then try and get her family to do the same is harrowing. She is imprisoned and interrogated and her family goes through the same just to leave North Korea for a better, freer life. They had been brainwashed their whole lives about what the world around them was like, and were shocked to find what it really was. I commend her for leaving, especially at a young age with no money and hardly any contacts to save herself and those she loves.

I recommend you reading this book. I think it gives us an eye opening experience of what it is like for the the citizens of North Korea. ( )
  JenMat | Jan 10, 2019 |
I didn't find the writing style conducive to believing this story was important. Too much emphasis on trivial detail distracted from what should have been highpoints of the narrative. Interesting view of a culture that believes that luck controls the outcome. ( )
  MM_Jones | Nov 23, 2018 |
Hyeonseo writes with such passion and honesty. Her amazing story provides a valuable insight into life in North Korea, particularly into the lives of those living close to the border with China. Fascinating, confronting and unbelievable - the day-to-day plight of North Koreans is beyond words. The propaganda machine of the Kim regime in North Korea is beyond chilling. As I was reading this book, I was struck by how anachronistic life is in North Korea. I had to keep reminding myself that I was reading about present day and not about Maoist China. This book would make fantastic required reading material for middle schoolers, but I would highly recommend it to everyone. ( )
  bookishblond | Oct 24, 2018 |
The Girl with Seven Names, Hyeonseo Lee, David John, authors, Josie Dunn, narrator

Hyeonseo Lee had not meant to escape from North Korea or her family. Although it was dangerous, she had only wanted to secretly cross the river into China to visit with some relatives before her 18th birthday. She had planned to return in a couple of weeks at which time she would get an official ID card. However, life intervened in the form of a government census. Her mother was forced to report her missing. She had unwittingly put her mother and brother in danger. Her 18th birthday had come and gone, and now if she were to return she would be responsible for her actions and would be punished. She was trapped in China.

Growing up, Hyeonseo Lee had been a happy and well loved child. In school, she learned what all the other children learned. North Korea was the greatest country in the world. The leaders were like G-ds and even their pictures were valued more than any other possession. The students were brainwashed. They were taught to hate South Koreans and Americans. There were rules about dress and behavior. They were trained to denounce each other for any perceived infractions. Those families would then simply disappear, more often than not. Neighbors turned each other in for extra rations. The fear was pervasive. They had no real freedom, but they also had no real responsibility. The government was meant to provide everything, education, health care, food and shelter, although it was minimal, at best, and many went hungry.

This memoir is the remarkable story of Hyenonseo Lee’s journey to freedom after finding herself trapped in China without proper identification papers. Without any skills or visible means of support, she was forced to rely on her courage, her wits and her relatives and family friends to survive. She was willful and resourceful, and when she felt trapped, she simply picked up and moved on, without a plan, even abandoning those who helped her, if necessary. Fortunately, most often, luck intervened and prevented tragedy from overtaking her. Her story, though, is harrowing and hard to believe. Time after time she escaped from the most dangerous situations because of the kindness of strangers or simply serendipity. After more than a decade, and many hair-raising experiences, she was finally granted asylum in South Korea.

Still, she was alone there, and separated from those she loved. She despaired and would often dream about bringing her mother and brother to her. It would not be without great expense and grave risk to all of them. Escaping from North Korea was dangerous, even for those who had special relationships with the border guards, like her brother who was a smuggler. In the Asian countries mentioned in the book, North and South Korea, Laos, Vietnam, and China, bribery was a way of life. Smuggling of goods and humans was a common business. Brokers, sometimes unscrupulous, were paid to guide those seeking asylum out of the country. Bribes needed to be arranged so that border guards would look away. Government officials took money, as well. Sometimes the commitments were not honored and the money was lost and the asylum seekers were imprisoned and sent back to uncertain fates. No one could be trusted. People eagerly turned each other in to the authorities. Escape often depended on lucky breaks.

For almost two decades, Hyeonseo bounced from job to job, relationship to relationship and from one precarious situation to another. What her story reveals is the constant fear that the North Koreans live with daily. It reveals their distrust of everyone, since everyone is a possible enemy. It reveals their ignorance of all things other than North Korea. It reveals their hatred for America. North Koreans are brainwashed by a system that allows no outside information to influence their lives. It was cell phones and the internet that combined to open up Hyenonseo’s eyes to the world outside and that allowed her to maintain contact with her family throughout her years of exile.

After reading the memoir, I thought that the author either exhibited extreme courage or extreme naïveté. On the one hand, her cleverness allowed her to escape many an ordeal, but on the other, her lack of worldliness prevented her from being suspicious at appropriate times which exposed her to danger that might have been avoided. That said, I do not think there are many who could have successfully accomplished all that she has been able to accomplish in the two decades of her wandering, although, in order to accomplish her goals, she often compromised others. Luckily, things seemed to work out in the end.

There is a great deal of significance given to names in the book. First, a good name was very important in North Korea. Second, the author changed hers, for a variety of reasons, seven times before she found freedom. Thirdly, she also had a unique way of describing her relatives with names that revealed something about them, like Uncle Poor, Uncle Opium, Aunt Pretty and Aunt Tall.

While the book is really informative, and I learned a great deal about the hardships and the dangers the North Koreans face, I don’t think the book fully brought out the magnitude of the danger. So much happened over the almost two decades of her trials and tribulations, but sometimes the story moved on before I fully absorbed it or understood exactly how it really played out. ( )
  thewanderingjew | Sep 5, 2018 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Lee, Hyeonseoprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
John, Davidmain authorall editionsconfirmed
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(Prologue) I was awoken by my mother's cry.
(chapter 1) One morning in the late summer of 1977, a young woman said goodbye to her sisters on the platform of Hyesan station and boarded the train for Pyongyang.
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Book description
As a child, Hyeonseo Lee was one of millions indoctri
nated in N Kprea by the world's most secretive and brutal regime. And yet, having survived the chaos, starvation and repression of the Great Famine, she dared to escape to China in 1997 aged just 17. Knowing reprisals for herself and her family would be lethal if she returned, this lonely, vulnerable teenage immigrant tried to make a life for herself on the run.She discovered that a life with no identity, no reason to exist, was no easier than life inside N Korea. Now an acclaimed international campaigner, her brave and remarkable voice testifies to past horrors, and offers the most truthful account of ordinary life in N Korea.
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In 1997 the author, aged 17, escaped North Korea for China. Her mother's first words over the telephone to her lost daughter were "don't come back". The reprisals for all of them would have been lethal. Twelve years later she returned to the North Korean border in a daring mission to spirit her mother and brother to South Korea in a very costly and dangerous journey. This eloquent book offers the first credible account of ordinary life in North Korea and gives an extraordinary insight into the life under one of the world's most ruthless and secretive dictatorships.… (more)

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