20 reviews

Orphan Masters Son
by Adam Johnson

Published: 2012-01-01
Paperback : 464 pages
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57 clubs reading this now
16 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 18 of 20 members

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 ...

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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.

Editorial Review

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, January 2012

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


No Excerpt Currently Available

Discussion Questions

Suggested by Members

How does your definition of peace fit into the world of North Korea as portrayed by Adam Johnson?
If Jun Do represents Every Man, how are his tenets present in other cultures?
What contradictions and comparisons did you notice between America and North Korea as portrayed in the Texas scenes?
by tkisaak (see profile) 09/10/14

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

Book Club Recommendations

Cheese, checkered table cloth, and peaches
by tkisaak (see profile) 09/10/14
Our hostesses set a table with food inspired by the Texas scene. A huge bowl of melted cheese sat atop a checkered table cloth, accompanied by a quote from the book about Americans putting cheese on everything. They served a single peach on a plate following our discussion...and returned to the kitchen to plate peach cobbler and redeliver to guests.

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
by Gloria H. (see profile) 08/07/17

  "Orphan Masters Son ~ informative and frightening read"by Mary G. (see profile) 11/06/15

A peek into life under dictatorship

  "North Korea is off my travel wish list"by Mindy S. (see profile) 11/06/15

Creative fictional account of life in North Korea. I was enthralled with the characters and the story. It's the type of book that absolutely begs for discussion. Great book club choice

  "The Orphan Master's Son"by Mya H. (see profile) 05/17/15

An interesting view into the people and culture of North Korea.

by Nancy Z. (see profile) 10/04/14

  "The Orphan Masters Son"by Treesa H. (see profile) 09/19/14

  "Very well written story of the lives of North Koreans"by sharon M. (see profile) 09/10/14

The Orphan Masters Son is so well written that it will capture your mind and dreams. You will learn things about the North Korean government and their "Dear Leader" Kim Jong IL's control and treatment... (read more)

  "The Orphan Master's Son"by Tere I. (see profile) 09/10/14

Superbly written, the reader is swept into a captivating narrative of life in North Korea through the traumatic events of its protagonist, Jun Do. Adam Johnson has shown his talent as a writer by using... (read more)

  "The Orphan Masters Son"by Gloria J. (see profile) 09/10/14

A fiction novel so well written that it rips you quickly through a compelling story of a North Korean orphans life. It portrays a country of people looking for just the right 'Tall Tale' to support its... (read more)

by Melissa H. (see profile) 08/21/14

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