On The Orphan Master’s Son

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

I have this long list of books I need and want to read. I promised to start clearing a few during this trip. On the plane, I chose to start with The Orphan Master’s Son an Adam Johnson novel that came highly recommended. It wasn’t until I downloaded it from Amazon that I realized it had won the Pullitzer Prize for Fiction recently.

The story is set in North Korea, or more completely, the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” Like a previous novel I had read, this one takes me to a place that is completely foreign to the world I know and move in, or have traveled to, in more ways than its physical geography. The author describes the landscape with such intricate detail that transports the reader to the lowest sump pits of interrogation bunkers to the highest of hills on the suburbs of Pyongyang or out to sea on board the Junma. You can almost smell the pungency rising out of the rice paddies as he describes the grueling 16-hour harvesting the “volunteers” from the city were required to perform as a reminder of their kinship with their comrades on the countryside.

The story is layered with real events that happen to the main characters contrasted with its fictionalized propaganda versions blaring out non-stop on loudspeakers in every household, office, anywhere there were citizens for that matter, like a daily soap opera. In the latter, the Dear Leader is, of course, always glorified as the savior, the benevolent father, the wise protector and sage teacher of the entire populace. What a novel way to brainwash, by entertaining reality-show style!

I found the story line both engaging (I was obsessed until I finished it!) and multi-dimensional. The story begins with Jun-do, who lives in an orphanage that his father has been tasked to manage. He is the orphan master of Long Tomorrows (They do have odd names of places and even government agencies and programs). Although he is not technically an orphan, Jun-do is labeled as one for having grown up in the place. His mother was taken away to Pyongyang, never to be seen again, when Jun-do was very young. There are statements of her beauty and her talent for singing. His father forever resents the forced separation but must acquiesce to the Dear Leader’s commands and whims. By telling you this, I’m not giving away much of the story. I’m only scraping the surface, really.

Although the assignments for the various characters seem quite macabre at times, you can’t help but feel sorry for their plight and their conditions.  In spite of all the gore and injustice, you can’t help but be sympathetic and even root for them.

Some critics have labeled the novel a thriller, a dark comedy, a satire, even a love story or a political dystopia. I say, it’s all of the above. Once you begin, you can’t put it down. You want to know the twists and turns of where your protagonists are headed. At the same time, you are confronted with the realities of living in an extreme totalitarian society. In order for the characters to maintain their sanity, they need to inject some humor into their tragic plight, which makes for dark commentary. One of the lines I can’t seem to forget is when the character known only as the interrogator (names are not important to some, as are identities), asked his father, “Is it just about survival? Is that all there is?”

If you’re a fan of post-apocalyptic dystopian societies like “The Hunger Games” or “Legend,” then you’ll get a kick out of this one. The only difference is, this world does exist in our time and somewhere in our world now. Maybe one can argue that the Korean War was their catalytic event and they had to reinvent themselves in the aftermath of all the destruction. Of interest too is their view of freedoms and injustices and how they see the rest of the world outside as oppressed, limited and stunted compared to their freedoms and privileges under the care of their Great Leader, who by the way, is the ultimate orphan master. Everyone drinks the Dear Leader’s cool-aid. Or else.

You know when a book has left an impact on you when you continue to move within the world it created in your head long after you turned the last page. This is one of them.

At Hacienda Cantina, somewhere at the edge of Playa Medano, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

At Hacienda Cantina, somewhere at the edge of Playa Medano, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

My apologies for not catching up with posts and comments. Have had spotty internet access for a few days.

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19 Responses to On The Orphan Master’s Son

  1. Pingback: Applause For Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch | Likeitiz

  2. Pingback: Dystopian Societies Everywhere | Not the Family Business!

  3. djmatticus says:

    Great review. I’m going to have to check this one out.


  4. I am adding this to my huge summer reading list, your review makes me want to read it. I am a new follower of your blog, it’s so interesting and I am glad that I found you. I hope my followers will add you, too, so I gave you the Versatile Blogger Award. I gave it to the last five blogs I followed. Keep up the great work!


  5. Jojit S Las says:

    In one of the islands in the Philippines, one family had succeeded in subjugating the people by marrying politics with the religious cult they established years ago. The people seem to enthusiastically put them in power election after election keeping their province one of the poorest in the country while members of this elite family live in castles sticking out like sore thumbs in the impoverished provincial landscape. It is expected that these Dear Leaders will remain in power for many years to come.


  6. Writerlious says:

    What a wonderful review. I will definitely add this to my list of books to read.


  7. i will put this on my list. i just finished reading all Neal Stephenson’s books some are along this vein.


  8. WordsFallFromMyEyes says:

    Sounds captivating. Well written review.


  9. Captivating book that makes you feel like you were there. As for the last picture, wishing I cam there right now enjoying the sea breeze. Happy Mother’s Day. Wishing you all the best my friend.


  10. munchow says:

    Thanks for this review. I have to admit I have never even heard about Adam Johnson, but you pique my curiosity with you description of the book. I might just have to read it. Quite a different setting, that’s for sure.


  11. Lucid Gypsy says:

    It sound unusual and a fascinating glimpse into a very different world from mine.


  12. vastlycurious.com says:

    I will read it! Loved Legend.


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