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
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

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

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers

Buy This Book

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 ...
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!
  • award image

    Pulitzer Prize for Letters, Drama and Music
    2013

  • award image

Reviews

BookBrowse Review

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).

Full Review Members Only (681 words).

Media Reviews

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.

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.

Reader Reviews

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...   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

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 ...   Read More

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.

Write your own review!

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book

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 ...

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

Readalikes

Readalikes Full readalike results are for members only

If you liked The Orphan Master's Son, try these:

Non-members are limited to two results. Become a member


Search Readalikes again
How we choose readalikes
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!

One Month Free Membership

Join Today!

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: All the Ugly and Wonderful Things
    All the Ugly and Wonderful Things
    by Bryn Greenwood
    Bryn Greenwood's debut, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, is a harsh, raw, and ultimately, truthful...
  • Book Jacket: Hot Milk
    Hot Milk
    by Deborah Levy
    When people reach their early 20s, they often choose to go abroad – they want to get away from...
  • Book Jacket: Ninety-Nine Stories of God
    Ninety-Nine Stories of God
    by Joy Williams
    I have to preface this review by saying that I am not a fan of religious fiction - not even books ...

First Impressions

  • Book Jacket

    Underground Airlines
    by Ben Winters

    "The Invisible Man meets Blade Runner in this outstanding alternate history thriller." - PW Star

    Read Member Reviews

  • Book Jacket

    Ashes of Fiery Weather
    by Kathleen Donohoe

    "Admirers of Pete Hamill and Kate Atkinson will appreciate this gripping novel." - Library Journal

    Read Member Reviews

Book Discussions
Book Jacket
Circling the Sun
by Paula McLain

An intoxicatingly vivid portrait of colonial Kenya and its privileged inhabitants.

About the book
Join the discussion!
Win this book!
Win Lady Cop Makes Trouble

The Kopp Sisters Return!

One of the nation's first female deputy sheriffs returns in another gripping adventure based on fact.

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

Manners M (T) M

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.

 
X

Free Weekly Newsletter

Keep up with what's happening in the world of books:
Reviews, previews, interviews and more!



Spam Free: Your email is never shared with anyone; opt out any time.