Reader reviews and comments on The Orphan Master's Son, plus links to write your own review.

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The Orphan Master's Son

A Novel

by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's Son
  • Critics' Opinion:

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  • First Published:
    Jan 2012, 464 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2012, 480 pages

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There are currently 33 reader reviews for The Orphan Master's Son
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Maggie P. (Mount Airy, MD) (11/13/11)

A Different World
The Orphan Master's Son grabs you from the start. Transported to the world of North Korea, the reader is intrigued to see what Pak Jun Do encounters next. Both a love story and a thriller, this book keeps the reader on the edge of their seat.
Deborah M. (Chambersburg, PA) (11/12/11)

Takes Readers to a Place They've Never Been
Johnson takes us inside a country that most of us know little about: contemporary North Korea. We're all familiar with the soundbites from the news that describe a monomaniacal dictator who places personal power above the welfare of his people. But Johnson shows what it must be like to live--no, SURVIVE--within the justified paranoia engendered in such a place. The sweeping plot follows the titular protagonist, Jun Do, through his rise in the ranks by both dedication and devious means. It's a thriller, a mystery, a love story; there's something here for everyone. What will stay with me most after reading this novel is the sense of what it must be like to live with gut-wrenching fear on a day-to-day basis. To feel that no one can be trusted; to feel that you're constantly under scrutiny; to feel afraid to love, to hope, to dream--all of the things that make us human. This is a complex book, but one definitely worth the effort.
Katherine Y. (Albuquerque, NM) (11/10/11)

Compelling Story, Wanted to Get Inside the Characters More
While the writing was excellent and the story fascinating and complicated, I wanted more characterization. I felt the story wasn't as powerful because, the events of the story overshadowed the actual people experiencing them.
Linda P. (MEDFORD, WI) (11/08/11)

Not My Cup of Tea
Adam Johnson is a very good writer. I just didn't enjoy his novel. I thought I would enjoy it by it's blurb, but I was wrong. I'm sure The Orphan Master's Son will appeal to many, but it left me feeling sad. Enough said.
Betsey V. (Austin, TX) (11/07/11)

A minefield of a fable, myth and realism combined
Adam Johnson writes with authority about the essentially unknown North Korean culture and civilization. Kim Jong Il's force-fed propaganda controls the people so consummately that their identities are squeezed from their minds and replaced with a state-sponsored life and perspective. The life of a North Korean is not the pursuit of happiness or self-actualization. It is solely to survive, like an insect or a rodent. To live, you must become a shell, an unquestionably loyal nationalist.

What Johnson realizes so well in his debut novel are the conflicts, confrontations, and abysses between the self that has been annihilated and the social structure that replaces the self. Every word you utter is weighed, and could be twisted as subversive. You are subjected to daily propaganda reports through loudspeakers connected to your house. People are traumatized from the cradle to the grave, and your individual thoughts are a threat to your security and safety. You are raised to be a complete subject of the state, and to wear the skin of trauma that is inflicted daily.

Jun Do is a survivor of famine and abandonment. His father ran an orphanage, and Jun Do was expected to impersonate an orphan from an early age. His strength, talents, and stamina lead him along an epic path. From his high seas and espionage adventures on a fishing vessel, where he develops his first chosen father-son emotional relationship, to the deprivations and torture of the prison mines, to the corrupt corridors of power, where his skill of impersonation becomes his sword and precarious shield, Jun Do's life literally morphs into a fabled one. He learns to act alone, and yet to connect with the hearts of others.

"Today, tomorrow...A day is nothing. A day is just a match you strike after the ten thousand matches before it have gone out," says the tragic, beautifully wounded actress, Sun Moon, who has made persona an art, and who once captured the hearts of all the citizens, including her husband, Commander Ga. Jun Do's transformations, internal and external, bring him squarely into the receptacles of Commander Ga, Sun Moon, and the "Dear Leader" himself.

This postmodern novel is told via stunning juxtapositions, between the controllers and subjects of a treacherous society and the inner will of the individual. The historical context is authentic, complex, layered, and detailed. Chapters alternate between Jun Do and a nameless interrogator, which progress to an operatic denouement. This isn't the kind of novel that grabs you immediately; there are many ambiguities and inchoate events that build gradually, stone by stone, erecting an explosive story that tunnels through the doom of a raw reality, to a bloodletting myth, and into the chambers of a sequestered heart.
Shirley D. (Amherst, MA) (11/06/11)

Brilliantly Written
I didn’t know much about North Korea and I’m not sure I want to know any more. The Orphan Master’s Son is so brilliantly written, I found myself immediately involved in the lives of the of the characters. I’m glad I read it but wish I hadn’t felt so personally involved – no objectivity here. The writing captured me completely and I could read just so much at a time. I am conflicted. I have to say it is a wonderful/awful book and I’ll never in the future hear the words “North Korea” without a personal connection..
Annie P. (Murrells Inlet, SC) (11/06/11)

The Orphan Master's Son
“Citizens, gather round your loudspeakers …” – what a beginning to an absolutely fascinating story! Imagine having an announcement every morning, in your home, office, any building in the country, giving you the day’s news, recipes, stories, and a constant barrage of propaganda with which to mold your thoughts until there is no individual, just a human extension of the government.

It took a little time getting into the story; there were many characters, who would come and go, some never to be seen again, others popping in with regularity. Once they settled down, or I became accustomed to them, the story began rolling along. Everything is ruled by the government, what your job is, who you will marry, and always, Big Brother watching, listening. Jun Do’s experiences from the time he lived in the orphanage until he transformed into something else so much later on, were interesting, shocking, miserable. The lack of conscience for some of the people comes across loud and clear, while others seem to only be biding their time.
At first, I may not have selected this book off the shelf. Now, I’m very glad to have had a chance to read it; not doing so would have been a huge error on my part. I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in another culture, the way romance is handled, battles waged, and children raised. Read it and like me, be glad you did.
chetyarbrough.com (11/06/11)

Captain Korea
Adam Johnson's book, "The Orphan Master's Son", tells a tale about the dismal condition of life in North Korea. His fiction is consistent with Barbara Demick's "Nothing to Envy" that is based on interviews of refugees from Kim Jong-Il's totalitarian regime; i.e. Johnson's fictional picture fits descriptions given in the North Korean' interviews.

Johnson tells a story of Pak Jun Do, his survival and advancement in Kim Jon-Il's "Alice in Wonderland" world where cards can be soldiers because the "Mad Hatter" (North Korea's Dear Leader) says it is so. Pak Jun Do's life begins in an orphanage; he becomes a kidnapper of Japanese citizens for the Dear Leader, and later assumes the identity of a general in the Korean army. Pak Jun Do's surrealistic adventure exposes bizarre methods of intimidation, torture, and propaganda that sustain North Korea's existence.

The pace of Johnson's narrative, the clever exposure of North Korea's propagandist methodology, and his references to reported real life incidents (like the kidnapping of Japanese citizens) keep one's interest long enough to complete the book. However, Johnson's story is disjointed with jarring segues in the history of its hero. Johnson packs many bizarre incidents in his story but character development is weak. The love of Pak Jun Do for North Korea's most famous actress and how that love develops is too contrived and unbelievable.

Johnson's book reads like a comic book episode of Captain America or, more aptly, Captain Korea. The hero's tortuous flight to freedom is unconvincing.

North Korea is a dark totalitarian country that needs real heroes. Adam Johnson appears to have enough understanding of the country to create a more believable North Korean character than Pak Jun Do.
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