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The Orphan Master's Son: A Novel
by Adam Johnson

Published: 2012-01-10
Hardcover : 464 pages
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NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD FINALIST • LONGLISTED FOR THE AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION’S ANDREW CARNEGIE MEDAL • NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLERNAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The Washington Post • Entertainment Weekly • The Wall Street Journal • Los Angeles Times ...
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Introduction

NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD FINALIST • LONGLISTED FOR THE AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION’S ANDREW CARNEGIE MEDAL • NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY

The Washington Post • Entertainment Weekly • The Wall Street Journal • Los Angeles Times • San Francisco Chronicle • Financial Times • Newsweek/The Daily Beast • The Plain Dealer • St. Louis Post-Dispatch • Milwaukee Journal Sentinel • Slate • Salon • BookPage • Shelf Awareness
 
“The single best work of fiction published in 2012 . . . The book’s cunning, flair and pathos are testaments to the still-formidable power of the written word.”—The Wall Street Journal

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.

Praise for The Orphan Masters Son

“Mr. Johnson has written a daring and remarkable novel, a novel that not only opens a frightening window on the mysterious kingdom of North Korea, but one that also excavates the very meaning of love and sacrifice.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
 
“Rich with a sense of discovery . . . The year is young, but The Orphan Master’s Son has an early lead on novel of 2012.”—The Daily Beast
 
“This is a novel worth getting excited about.”—The Washington Post
 
“[A] ripping piece of fiction that is also an astute commentary on the nature of freedom, sacrifice, and glory.”—Elle 

Editorial Review

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, January 2012: It is only January, but Adam Johnsonâ??s astonishing novel is destined to cast a long shadow over the year in books. Jun Do is The Orphan Masterâ??s Son, a North Korean citizen with a rough past who is working as a government-sanctioned kidnapper when we first meet him. He is hardly a sympathetic character, but sympathy is not author Johnsonâ??s aim. In a totalitarian nation of random violence and bewildering capriceâ??a poor, gray place that nonetheless refers to itself as â??the most glorious nation on earthâ??â??an unnatural tension exists between a citizenâ??s national identity and his private life. Through Jun Doâ??s story we realize that beneath the weight of oppression and lies beats a heart not much different from our ownâ??one that thirsts for love, acceptance, and hopeâ??and that realization is at the heart of this shockingly believable, immersive, and thrilling novel. --Chris Schluep



Adam Johnson on The Orphan Master's Son

When I arrived at Pyongyang's Sunan Airport a few years ago, my head was still spinning from a landing on a runway lined with cattle, electric fences and the fuselages of other jets whose landings hadn't gone so well. Even though I'd spent three years writing and researching The Orphan Master's Son, I was unprepared for what I was about to encounter in â??the most glorious nation in the world.â??

I'd started writing about North Korea because of a fascination with propaganda and the way it prescribes an official narrative to an entire people. In Pyongyang, that narrative begins with the founding of a glorious nation under the fatherly guidance of Kim Il Sung, is followed by years of industry and sacrifice among its citizenry, so that when Kim Jong Il comes to power, all is strength, happiness and prosperity. It didn't matter that the story was a complete fiction--every citizen was forced to become a character whose motivations, desires and fears were dictated by this script. The labor camps were filled with those who hadn't played their parts, who'd spoken of deprivation instead of plenitude and the purest democracy.

When I visited places like Pyongyang, Kaesong City, Panmunjom and Myohyangsan, I understood that a genuine interaction with a North Korean citizen was unlikely, since contact with foreigners was illegal. As I walked the streets, not one person would risk a glance, a smile, even a pause in their daily routine. In the Puhung Metro Station, I wondered what happened to personal desires when they came into conflict with a national story. Was it possible to retain a personal identity in such conditions, and under what circumstances would a person reveal his or her true nature? These mysteries--of subsumed selves, of hidden lives, of rewritten longings--are the fuel of novels, and I felt a powerful desire to help reveal what a dynastic dictatorship had forced these people to conceal.

Of course, I could only speculate on those lives, filling the voids with research and imagination. Back home, I continued to read books and seek out personal accounts. Testimonies of gulag survivors like Kang Chol Hwan proved invaluable. But I found that most scholarship on the DPRK was dedicated to military, political and economic theory. Fewer were the books that focused directly on the people who daily endured such circumstances. Rarer were the narratives that tallied the personal cost of hidden emotions, abandoned relationships, forgotten identities. These stories I felt a personal duty to tell. Traveling to North Korea filled me with a sense that every person there, from the lowliest laborer to military leaders, had to surrender a rich private life in order to enact one pre-written by the Party. To capture this on the page, I created characters across all levels of society, from the orphan soldier to the Party leaders. And since Kim Jong Il had written the script for all of North Korea, my novel didn't make sense without writing his role as well.


Featured Photographs

Anti-tank devices seen while traveling south from Pyongyang toward Panmunj
 
DPRK soldier
 
Air raid sirens
 
Revelutionary Martyr's Cemetery on Mount Taesong

Excerpt

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. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

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Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Reviews:

“A great novel can take implausible fact and turn it into entirely believable fiction. That’s the genius of The Orphan Master’s Son. Adam Johnson has taken the papier-mâché creation that is North Korea and turned it into a real and riveting place that readers will find unforgettable. This is a novel worth getting excited about, one which more than delivers on its pre-publication buzz… I haven’t liked a new novel this much in years, and I want to share the simple pleasure of reading the book. But I also think it’s an instructive lesson in how to paint a fictional world against a background of fact: The secret is research…It’s this process of re-imagination that makes the fictional locale so real and gives the novel an impact you could never achieve with a thousand newspaper stories. Johnson has painted in indelible colors the nightmare of Kim’s North Korea. When English readers want to understand what it was about — how people lived and died inside a cult of personality that committed unspeakable crimes against its citizens — I hope they will turn to this carefully documented story. The happy surprise is that they will find it such a page turner.” —The Washington Post

“Adam Johnson's remarkable novel "The Orphan Master’s Son" is set in North Korea, an entire nation that has conformed to the fictions spun by a dictator and his inner circle…Mr. Johnson is a wonderfully flexible writer who can pivot in a matter of lines from absurdity to atrocity…We don't know what's really going on in that strange place, but a disquieting glimpse suggesting what it must be like can be found in this brilliant and timely novel.” – Wall Street Journal

“Magnificently accomplished…Part thriller, part coming-of-age novel, part romance, The Orphan Master’s Son is made sturdy by research…but what makes it so absorbing isn’t its documentary realism but the dark flight of the author’s imagination…rich with a sense of discovery…The year is young, but The Orphan Master’s Son has an early lead on novel of 2012” –The Daily Beast

"Providing a rare glimpse into one of the world’s least known countries, Adam Johnson weaves a tale of hardship, romance, and redemption in North Korea in The Orphan Master’s Son." -- National Geographic Traveler

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
  "The Orphan Master's Son"by cmardin (see profile) 11/02/12

A view of life in North Korea.
This book gives a glimpse into a world virtually unknown by outsiders. A good book for discussion.

 
  "The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson"by tidewater (see profile) 11/02/12

At first it is tough to follow and it is a difficult topic; however if you stick with it, it is a wonderful dramatic story that is happening right now in our own time. Read the back of the book for the... (read more)

 
  "The Orphan Master's Son"by leftyonkey (see profile) 03/01/12

We collectively disliked this book. We thought the first half was better than the 2nd, but we all really wished we had picked something else. All of us said that we found it very hard to "want" to read... (read more)

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