Excerpt from The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Orphan Master's Son

A Novel

By Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's Son
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2012,
    464 pages.
    Paperback: Aug 2012,
    480 pages.

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The Orphan Master's Son

JUN DO'S mother was a singer. That was all Jun Do's father, the Orphan Master, would say about her. The Orphan Master kept a photograph of a woman in his small room at Long Tomorrows. She was quite lovely-eyes large and sideways looking, lips pursed with an unspoken word. Since beautiful women in the provinces get shipped to Pyongyang, that's certainly what had happened to his mother. The real proof of this was the Orphan Master himself. At night, he'd drink, and from the barracks, the orphans would hear him weeping and lamenting, striking half-heard bargains with the woman in the photograph. Only Jun Do was allowed to comfort him, to finally take the bottle from his hands.

As the oldest boy at Long Tomorrows, Jun Do had responsibilities - portioning the food, assigning bunks, renaming the new boys from the list of the 114 Grand Martyrs of the Revolution. Even so, the Orphan Master was serious about showing no favoritism to his son, the only boy at Long Tomorrows who wasn't an orphan. When the rabbit warren was dirty, it was Jun Do who spent the night locked in it. When boys wet their bunks, it was Jun Do who chipped the frozen piss off the floor. Jun Do didn't brag to the other boys that he was the son of the Orphan Master, rather than some kid dropped off by parents on their way to a 9-27 camp. If someone wanted to figure it out, it was pretty obvious- Jun Do had been there before all of them, and the reason he'd never been adopted was because his father would never let someone take his only son. And it made sense that after his mother was stolen to Pyongyang, his father had applied for the one position that would allow him to both earn a living and watch over his son.

The surest evidence that the woman in the photo was Jun Do's mother was the unrelenting way the Orphan Master singled him out for punishment. It could only mean that in Jun Do's face, the Orphan Master saw the woman in the picture, a daily reminder of the eternal hurt he felt from losing her. Only a father in that kind of pain could take a boy's shoes in winter. Only a true father, flesh and bone, could burn a son with the smoking end of a coal shovel.

Occasionally, a factory would adopt a group of kids, and in the spring, men with Chinese accents would come to make their picks. Other than that, anyone who could feed the boys and provide a bottle for the Orphan Master could have them for the day. In summer they filled sandbags and in winter they used metal bars to break sheets of ice from the docks. On the machining floors, for bowls of cold chap chai, they would shovel the coils of oily metal that sprayed from the industrial lathes. The railyard fed them best, though, spicy yukejang. One time, shoveling out boxcars, they swept up a powder that looked like salt. It wasn't until they started sweating that they turned red, their hands and faces, their teeth. The train had been filled with chemicals for the paint factory. For weeks, they were red.

And then in the year Juche 85, the floods came. Three weeks of rain, yet the loudspeakers said nothing of terraces collapsing, earth dams giving, villages cascading into one another. The Army was busy trying to save the Sungli 58 factory from the rising water, so the Long Tomorrows boys were given ropes and long-handled gaffs to try to snare people from the Chongjin River before they were washed into the harbor. The water was a roil of timber, petroleum tanks, and latrine barrels. A tractor tire turned in the water, a Soviet refrigerator. They heard the deep booms of boxcars tumbling along the river bottom. The canopy of a troop carrier spun past, a screaming family clinging to it. Then a young woman rose from the water, mouth wide but silent, and the orphan called Bo Song gaffed her arm-right away he was jerked into the current. Bo Song had come to the orphanage a frail boy, and when they discovered he had no hearing, Jun Do gave him the name Un Bo Song, after the 37th Martyr of the Revolution, who'd famously put mud in his ears so he couldn't hear the bullets as he charged the Japanese.

Still, the boys shouted "Bo Song, Bo Song" as they ran the riverbanks, racing beside the patch of river where Bo Song should have been. They ran past the outfall pipes of the Unification Steelworks and along the muddy berms of the Ryongsong's leach ponds, but Bo Song was never seen again. The boys stopped at the harbor, its dark waters ropy with corpses, thousands of them in the throes of the waves, looking like curds of sticky millet that start to flop and toss when the pan heats.

Though they didn't know it, this was the beginning of the famine-first went the power, then the train service. When the shock-work whistles stopped blowing, Jun Do knew it was bad. One day the fishing fleet went out and didn't come back. With winter came blackfinger and the old people went to sleep. These were just the first months, long before the bark-eaters. The loudspeakers called the famine an Arduous March, but that voice was piped in from Pyongyang. Jun Do had never heard anyone in Chongjin call it that. What was happening to them didn't need a name-it was everything, every fingernail you chewed and swallowed, every lift of an eyelid, every trip to the latrine where you tried to shit out wads of balled sawdust. When all hope was gone, the Orphan Master burned the bunks, the boys sleeping around a pot stove that glowed on their last night. In the morning, he flagged down a Soviet Tsir, the military truck they called "the crow" because of its black canvas canopy on the back. There were only a dozen boys left, a perfect fit in the back of the crow. All orphans are destined for the Army eventually. But this was how Jun Do, at fourteen, became a tunnel soldier, trained in the art of zero-light combat.

And that's where Officer So found him, eight years later. The old man actually came underground to get a look at Jun Do, who'd spent an overnighter with his team inside a tunnel that went ten kilometers under the DMZ, almost to the suburbs of Seoul. When exiting a tunnel, they'd always walk out backward, to let their eyes adjust, and he almost ran into Officer So, whose shoulders and big rib cage spoke of a person who'd come of age in the good times, before the Chollima campaigns.

"Are you Pak Jun Do?" he asked.

When Jun Do turned, a circle of light glowed behind the man's close- cropped white hair. The skin on his face was darker than his scalp or jaw, making it look like the man had just shaved off a beard and thick, wild hair. "That's me," Jun Do said.

"That's a Martyr's name," Officer So said. "Is this an orphan detail?"

Jun Do nodded his head. "It is," he said. "But I'm not an orphan."

Officer So's eyes fell upon the red taekwondo badge on Jun Do's chest.

"Fair enough," Officer So said and tossed him a sack.

In it were blue jeans, a yellow shirt with a polo pony, and shoes called Nikes that Jun Do recognized from long ago, when the orphanage was used to welcome ferry-loads of Koreans who had been lured back from Japan with promises of Party jobs and apartments in Pyongyang. The orphans would wave welcome banners and sing Party songs so that the Japanese Koreans would descend the gangway, despite the horrible state of Chongjin and the crows that were waiting to transport them all to kwan li so labor camps. It was like yesterday, watching those perfect boys with their new sneakers, finally coming home.

Jun Do held up the yellow shirt. "What am I supposed to do with this?" he asked.

"It's your new uniform," Officer So said. "You don't get seasick, do you?"

*

He didn't. They took a train to the eastern port of Cholhwang, where Officer So commandeered a fishing boat, the crew so frightened of their military guests that they wore their Kim Il Sung pins all the way across the sea to the coast of Japan. Upon the water, Jun Do saw small fish with wings and late morning fog so thick it took the words from your mouth. There were no loudspeakers blaring all day, and all the fishermen had portraits of their wives tattooed on their chests. The sea was spontaneous in a way he'd never seen before-it kept your body uncertain as to how you'd lean next, and yet you could become comfortable with that. The wind in the rigging seemed in communication with the waves shouldering the hull, and lying atop the wheelhouse under the stars at night, it seemed to Jun Do that this was a place a man could close his eyes and exhale.

Officer So had also brought along a man named Gil as their translator. Gil read Japanese novels on the deck and listened to headphones attached to a small cassette player. Only once did Jun Do try to speak to Gil, approaching him to ask what he was listening to. But before Jun Do could open his mouth, Gil stopped the player and said the word "Opera."

They were going to get someone-someone on a beach-and bring that someone home with them. That's all Officer So would say about their trip.

On the second day, darkness falling, they could see the distant lights of a town, but the Captain would take the boat no closer.

"This is Japan," he said. "I don't have charts for these waters."

"I'll tell you how close we get," Officer So said to the Captain, and with a fisherman sounding for the bottom, they made for the shore.

Jun Do got dressed, cinching the belt to keep the stiff jeans on.

"Are these the clothes of the last guy you kidnapped?" Jun Do asked.

Officer So said, "I haven't kidnapped anyone in years."

Jun Do felt his face muscles tighten, a sense of dread running through him.

"Relax," Officer So said. "I've done this a hundred times."

"Seriously?"

"Well, twenty-seven times."

Officer So had brought a little skiff along, and when they were close to the shore, he directed the fishermen to lower it. To the west, the sun was setting over North Korea, and it was cooling now, the wind shifting directions. The skiff was tiny, Jun Do thought, barely big enough for one person, let alone three and a struggling kidnap victim. With a pair of binoculars and a thermos, Officer So climbed down into the skiff. Gil followed. When Jun Do took his place next to Gil, black water lapped over the sides, and right away his shoes soaked through. He debated revealing that he couldn't swim.

Gil kept trying to get Jun Do to repeat phrases in Japanese. Good evening-Konban wa. Excuse me, I am lost-Chotto sumimasen, michi ni mayoimashita. Can you help me find my cat? - Watashi no neko ga maigo ni narimashita?

Officer So pointed their nose toward shore, the old man pushing the outboard motor, a tired Soviet Vpresna, way too hard. Turning north and running with the coast, the boat would lean shoreward as a swell lifted, then rock back toward open water as the wave set it down again.

Gil took the binoculars, but instead of training them on the beach, he studied the tall buildings, the way the downtown neon came to life.

"I tell you," Gil said. "There was no Arduous March in this place."

Jun Do and Officer So exchanged a look.

Officer So said to Gil, "Tell him what 'how are you' was again."

"Ogenki desu ka," Gil said.

"Ogenki desu ka," Jun Do repeated. "Ogenki desu ka."

"Say it like 'How are you, my fellow citizen?' Ogenki desu ka," Officer So said. "Not like how are you, I'm about to pluck you off this fucking beach."

Jun Do asked, "Is that what you call it, plucking?"

"A long time ago, that's what we called it." He put on a fake smile. "Just say it nice."

Jun Do said, "Why not send Gil? He's the one who speaks Japanese."

Officer So returned his eyes to the water. "You know why you're here."

Gil asked, "Why's he here?"

Officer So said, "Because he fights in the dark."

Gil turned to Jun Do. "You mean that's what you do, that's your career?" he asked.

"I lead an incursion team," Jun Do said. "Mostly we run in the dark, but yeah, there's fighting, too."

Gil said, "I thought my job was fucked up."

"What was your job?" Jun Do asked.

"Before I went to language school?" Gil asked. "Land mines."

"What, like defusing them?"

"I wish," Gil said.

They closed within a couple hundred meters of shore, then trolled along the beaches of Kagoshima Prefecture. The more the light faded, the more intricately Jun Do could see it reflected in the architecture of each wave that rolled them.

Gil lifted his hand. "There," he said. "There's somebody on the beach. A woman."

Officer So backed off the throttle and took the field glasses. He held them steady and fine-tuned them, his bushy white eyebrows lifting and falling as he focused. "No," he said, handing the binoculars back to Gil. "Look closer, it's two women. They're walking together."

Jun Do said, "I thought you were looking for a guy?"

"It doesn't matter," the old man said. "As long as the person's alone."

"What, we're supposed to grab just anybody?"

Officer So didn't answer. For a while, there was nothing but the sound of the Vpresna. Then Officer So said, "In my time, we had a whole division, a budget. I'm talking about a speedboat, a tranquilizing gun. We'd surveil, infiltrate, cherry-pick. We didn't pluck family types, and we never took children. I retired with a perfect record. Now look at me. I must be the only one left. I'll bet I'm the only one they could find who remembers this business."

Gil fixed on something on the beach. He wiped the lenses of the binoculars, but really it was too dark to see anything. He handed them to Jun Do. "What do you make out?" he asked.

When Jun Do lifted the binoculars, he could barely discern a male figure moving along the beach, near the water-he was just a lighter blur against a darker blur, really. Then some motion caught Jun Do's eye. An animal was racing down the beach toward the man-a dog it must've been, but it was big, the size of a wolf. The man did something and the dog ran away.

Jun Do turned to Officer So. "There's a man. He's got a dog with him."

Officer So sat up and put a hand on the outboard engine. "Is he alone?"

Jun Do nodded.

"Is the dog an akita?"

Jun Do didn't know his breeds. Once a week, the orphans had cleaned out a local dog farm. Dogs were filthy animals that would lunge for you at any opportunity-you could see where they'd attacked the posts of their pens, chewing through the wood with their fangs. That's all Jun Do needed to know about dogs.

Officer So said, "As long as the thing wags its tail. That's all you got to worry about."

Gil said, "The Japanese train their dogs to do little tricks. Say to the dog, Nice doggie, sit. Yoshi Yoshi. Osuwari Kawaii desu ne."

Jun Do said, "Will you shut up with the Japanese?"

  • 1

Excerpted from The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson. Copyright © 2012 by Adam Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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