Day 432: The Orphan Master’s Son

Cover for The Orphan Master's SonBest Book of the Week!

I can tell before I even start that this is going to be one of those times where I have difficulty conveying just how good this novel is. It is going to sound dreary and painful, but it is a wonderful, wonderful novel.

For a long while I avoided this book, afraid that the subject matter would be too cold or too harrowing. However, it has earned so many honors that I felt I finally had to read it. It is harrowing, but it is so very human, and touching, and inspiring.

Pak Jun Do (note the purposeful echoing of our clichéd unknown man, John Doe) is the only boy with a father who was raised in an orphanage in North Korea, the orphan master’s son, or so he believes. Of course, many of the orphans actually have parents, who dropped them off because they couldn’t or wouldn’t feed them during the time of the great famine. The orphans, including Jun Do, are shamelessly put to hard labor deep in the mines, where our hero learns a skill that will come in handy, to get around in the dark.

Later, he is assigned to a kidnapping team, sneaking into Japan to abduct unwary Japanese citizens. You can see him quietly processing his opinions about this activity. From this position, he is sent to language school and ends up on a fishing vessel spying on radio transmissions from other countries and vessels, including, significantly, those of a young American woman who is rowing around the world with a partner. Jun Do begins showing himself to be observant, resourceful, and ethical in his own way.

Jun Do has had a difficult start in life in an environment that seems almost totally arbitrary, and as he experiences one event after another, he begins to develop in unexpected directions and to look at his environment with a skeptical and aware eye. After an encounter with an American ship, Jun Do and his shipmates fabricate a ridiculous lie to save themselves and their families. This lie inadvertently results in Jun Do being declared a national hero. From there his life begins a series of remarkable transformations.

I am feeling my inadequacies here, because I am not conveying at all how wrapped up I became in Jun Do’s story. It is told in many voices, including the daily loudspeaker broadcast of propaganda (which is frequently ridiculous) and the “biography” put together by a state inquisitor. Some of the events are difficult to read about, some frankly absurd, as when the Dear Leader Kim Jung Il decides to entertain some American dignitaries with synchronized fork lift demonstrations.

The novel tells a story of hope, mixed in with the grim reality and sheer ludicrousness of what seems to be a fully realized vision of North Korean existence, where people live in terror of innocently making some terrible error. The book tells this story with power, with pathos, with sly humor, and with irony.

This book is really, really great.

9 thoughts on “Day 432: The Orphan Master’s Son

  1. I am so excited you reviewed this book. It’s one of the books on my TR list that I’m really looking forward to reading, and I will bump it up now that I’ve read your review. So glad you think so highly of it. When I think ‘dystopia’ I think N. Korea, but it’s not even fiction.

    1. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. Certainly, N. Korea isn’t a place I’d ever want to visit, but the main character is what makes this book worth reading. It’s so good!

    2. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. Certainly, N. Korea isn’t a place I’d ever want to visit, but the main character is what makes this book worth reading. It’s so good!

      I can’t tell if this reply worked. I hope it did without repeating!

  2. I want to read it too! Also, on the subject of North Korea, have you read Snow Hunters? Very different sort of book, but so, so lovely. I have a review of it scheduled for the end of December, but I think Cecilia has already posted a wonderful review on her blog.

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