Summary and book reviews of The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

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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About this Book

Book Summary

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.

Considering himself "a humble citizen of the greatest nation in the world," Jun Do 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."

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.

Excerpt
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 ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. How much did you know about North Korea before reading The Orphan Master's Son? How has it changed your perspective on life there?


  2. The Orphan Master's Son has been characterized as a thriller, a love story, and a political dystopia. How would you classify the novel in terms of genre? How do you think each of these genres manifests itself in the book?


  3. Speaking of genre, Adam Johnson once categorized the novel as a "trauma narrative." How do you interpret that term? Do you think it suitably describes the novel, and if so, in what ways?


  4. How did you feel about the inclusion of Kim Jong Il as a central character in the book? How would you say Johnson depicts him? Were you surprised by his portrayal?


  5. Discuss the ...
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  • award image

    Pulitzer Prize for Letters, Drama and Music
    2013

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Reviews

BookBrowse

Adam Johnson's somber yet highly praised novel, The Orphan Master's Son, has inspired enthusiastic responses from BookBrowse readers. 28 out of 32 reviewers rate it 4 or 5 stars. Here's what they have to say:

"Citizens, gather round your loudspeakers..." What a beginning to an absolutely fascinating story! Imagine having an announcement every morning, in your home, office... giving you the day's news, recipes, stories, and a constant barrage of propaganda that molds your thoughts until there is no individual, just a human extension of the government (Annie P). Part adventure thriller, part real-life dystopia documentary, part creative fiction, Adam Johnson searingly paints a portrait of a culture where the individual is erased and the collective is all that matters. Filled with twists and turns and exposure of the dark realities of life in North Korea (kidnapping of innocents, repression and propaganda), this is truly an imaginative feat (Jill S).   (Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers).

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Media Reviews
Author Blurb Abraham Verghese
Adam Johnson has pulled off literary alchemy, first by setting his novel in North Korea, a country that few of us can imagine, then by producing such compelling characters whose lives unfold at breakneck speed. I was engrossed right to the amazing conclusion. The result is pure gold, a terrific novel.

Author Blurb David Mitchell
An addictive novel of daring ingenuity; a study of sacrifice and freedom in a citizen-eating dynasty; and a timely reminder that anonymous victims of oppression are also human beings who love. A brave and impressive book.

Author Blurb Charles Bock
I've never read anything like it. This is truly an amazing reading experience, a tremendous accomplishment. I could spend days talking about how much I love this book. It sounds like overstatement, but no. The Orphan Master's Son is a masterpiece.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Johnson juxtaposes the vicious atrocities of the regime with the tenderness of beauty, love, and hope.

Library Journal

Starred Review. 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.

Booklist

Starred Review. The Orphan Master's Son is a triumph on every level.

Reader Reviews
Sande O. (Rochester, NY)

A Story of Obsession
Adam Johnson's view of life in North Korea is not for the feint of heart. Though fictional, it has the eerie sound of ultimate truth. This is a society without love, without hope, without any human emotion. The "beloved" leader is the source of ...   Read More

Teresa R. (Fort Collins, CO)

Harrowing, nightmarish, surreal
Imagining the tale of an individual living under North Korea’s dehumanized and repressive regime was a heroic undertaking, and the author’s exhaustive background research for the book was masterly. But I had trouble throughout with the story’s ...   Read More

Betsy R. (Gig Harbor, WA)

Worth reading
This is not typically the type of book I would select; however, its unique setting, the original story line and the excellent writing made this a title that I am very glad I read. I would tell readers to be patient as they navigate through the ...   Read More

Elizabeth K., Amigos Library Services (Dallas, TX)

Mysterious, compelling, frightening: North Korea
What happens when a country attempts to eliminate the individual and remold him or her into a nameless, faceless, interchangeable part of a bigger whole? No matter how oppressed, the human heart still yearns for love, for freedom, for something ...   Read More

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Recommended Reading on North Korea

Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son introduces many readers to the complex history and multi-layered culture of North Korea. If you'd like to learn more about the political and social climate of this country, allow us to suggest the following books:


Nothing to EnvyNothing to Envy by Barbara Demick: Demick's nonfiction work offers a remarkable insider's view of North Korea, as seen through the eyes of six ordinary citizens over fifteen years - a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il Sung, the unchallenged rise to power of his son Kim Jong Il, and the devastation of a far-ranging famine that killed one-fifth of the population.



Bamboo and BloodBamboo and Blood: An Inspector O Novel by James Church: In the winter of 1997, trying to stay alive during a ...

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    This spellbinding debut, reminiscent of Memoirs of a Geisha, depicts, with chilling accuracy, life behind North Korea's iron curtain.

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