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The Orphan Master's Son

A Novel

by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson X
The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2012, 464 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2012, 480 pages

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There are currently 35 reader reviews for The Orphan Master's Son
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Joseph Zillmer

The Tattoo Above My Heart is Fading
Format: Audio CD
If I am fortunate, two to three books a year will stop me in my tracks, mid stream (where I must catch my breath, take an emotional inventory, start over, or just the stop) of the twenty to thirty books I read annually.
I remember them all; Kirkwood's "Some Kind of Hero" (not the movie), Conroy's "Prince of Tides" & "The Great Santini", McMurtry's "Some Can Whistle" (by far his best). Recently? "All the Light We Cannot See", Tart's "The Goldfinch", Larry Brown's "Fay" & "Joe", Rick Bass' "Winter", "The Art of Racing in the Rain"...etc, etc. You get the picture, eclectic taste, hardly a scholar or critic.
When I opened the "Orphan Master's Son" by Adam Johnson, I read the first three paragraphs and slammed it shut. I then traveled to the Dollar Tree and bought Lavender Ribbon. I wrapped the book, crossing it horizontally and vertically several times before tying a tight naval knot dead center, requiring a knife or pry-bar to enter.
Immediately I found an unabridged Audio version for next day delivery.
The next morning I took the Fed-Ex package, threw my bag in the back seat and headed West out of Nashville (without any destination selected or suggested).
My journey underway, I inserted the CD. Quickly, the Daily Radio Broadcast for all of the citizens of the Democratic Party of North Korea began. The broadcast is hard wired into homes, apartments, public buildings, open squares, factories, museums, government buildings, restaurants, hospitals, on trucks and cars driving down roads or parked by farm workers. EVERYONE hears it; everyone MUST HEAR IT.
I began to snicker, the absurdity, the laugh out loud content; this book was satire-a comedy. Then it changed. Not the message, not the tone, not the intent; my heart changed. In thirty seconds my mind flooded with denial. Emotions pricked the hairs on the back of my neck, desperation charged my nervous system. This is too real, too uncomfortable for serious consideration. I drove straight to Oklahoma City, stopping once for fuel, never STOPPING "The Orphan Master's Son". Ten and one half hours of wonder, shock, fear and lamentations. I checked into my hotel and squirmed all night thinking about the People's Democratic Country of North Korea (the "freest" democracy in the world).
At dawn the next morning I drive thru Whataburger, got my Sausage/Egg Biscuits and headed towards Kansas City and then, Western Nebraska. The CD's clipped and exclaimed, the narrator was my friend, I knew him. I was with him as he tuned his ancient radio deep in the hull of the fishing vessel, searching radio transmissions from the ether, headphones tight. Searching for conversations that would assist the "Dear Leader", helping him lead the People's Democratic Republic of North Korea into a paradise on earth for his beloved citizenry. My compassion for the protagonist became familial. The future was shared. I may have been in Northwestern Nebraska but my chest (above my heart) was being tattooed by a Russian Ship Captain, perfecting a likeness of Sun-Moon, the National, beautiful actress of North Korea, so chaste, so virginal, I would (metaphorically) carry it on my chest forever. The paradox that IS North Korea is infuriating...no it's perfectly sensible...no it's expected...no...it is about people, like you and me, seeking true identity. We are all orphans in one sense or another, seeking validation, seeking...? Love. It IS the human condition. This book has stuck with me. No, it's entered my soul. I finished the book somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, Northwest of Lander, Wyoming. Now I must return east, to Nashville, much wiser, with a huge sense of loss. My tattoo, my visits to Section 42 and the "machine"? They will remain...forever.
GramT

A Must Read
A favorite book that all Americans must read to understand the North Koreans and the horrible conditions under which they live.
LUCIA DANGEKI

Superb!!!
I am envious of Adam Johnson's great gift. He has managed to convey the "hell" of North Korea without rubbing your face in it. While the characters suffer immensely, they are not to be pitied. Their ability to accept their plight without losing hope is so inspirational. I can't imagine how the author managed such a complicated plot line and kept the readers hanging on at the same time.
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 better than what it has. Adam Johnson writes as if he has lived the life he describes in this impressive, exhaustively-researched novel. This dense book explores the life of one man from his unbelievably harsh childhood to an even more difficult adulthood, emphasizing not just the physical pain, but the emotional and psychological scars of living in North Korea. This is a stunning book that should become required reading in college literature courses and for any American interested in learning more about North Korea.
Power Reviewer
Viqui G. (State College, PA)

The Orphan Master's Son
I was totally engrossed with this powerful novel by Adam Johnson. The book weaves an intricate story that depict a North Korean world that is extremely foreign to us. It was initially difficult to understand the mentality of the people living in this isolated country, however the author did an outstanding job of guiding the reader through the North Korean psyche. Their way of life and their system of government is so alien from ours that it was almost like reading about a science fictionalized community.
Pak Jun Do is the main character that survives despite many obstacles. The mental and physical torture that he endures would have destroyed many individuals. The author depicts his wit, his intellect and his mental toughness with great clarity.
This book will appeal to readers interested in a well paced novel of some complexity. There are many graphic scenes, so I don't recommend it to young people. However, it would definitely would appeal to readers that enjoy a challenging novel and enjoy immersing themselves in a well developed character.
Maggie P. (Mount Airy, MD)

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)

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.
Betsey V. (Austin, TX)

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.

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