The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's SonPublished: 2012

Genre: fiction

Length: 443 pages

Setting: North Korea, recent past

Interest: It was this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner

Summary: Jun Do is the son of the Orphan Master. He’s not an orphan, but he has an orphan’s name – one of the 114 Grand Martyrs of the Revolution. His job is to assign the boys to jobs and their sleeping and eating arrangements. One day, Officer So comes along and takes Jun Do with him to be part of a procurement detail that kidnaps people for the Dearest Leader. From there, he goes to language school, and gets put on a fishing boat listening to radio transmissions. He’s sent on a special diplomatic mission to America, which ultimately leads to him being sent to prison. In prison, Mongnan, a photographer, takes him under her wing and teacher him some survival skills. The second half of the book is told by Commander Ga to the intelligence agents trying to learn what he did with his wife and kids. Turns out, Jun Do killed Ga in the mines and assumed Ga’s life. It takes a while for Ga’s family to accept the new Commander Ga. The Supreme Leader uses Ga to try to humiliate an American diplomatic mission, but Ga uses the opportunity to smuggle his wife and family out of the country.

Final thoughts: A fascinating story, mainly because of the setting. The viewpoint and mindset of a North Korean is so different from an American. The author provided interstitial chapters that were transcripts of the national broadcasts everyone has to listen to. On many of the broadcasts, they would state how sorry everyone should be for the Americans since they had to pay for medical car and for entertainment and don’t know what to do with their lives since no one was there to tell them. The author did a great job putting you into this very different and dangerous setting. He even sold me on the idea that Jun Do could just replace Commander Ga and no one would say anything, since the Supreme Leader seemed to have been involved in the switch. I thoroughly enjoyed the story.

Title comes from: The main character, Jun Do, was the son of the Orphan Master.

Awards won: Pulitzer Prize and Dayton Literary Peace Prize in 2013

Reading challenges fulfilled: 74/100 in the Read-a-Latte Challenge, a J in my A-Z Reading Challenge author challenge (3/26), and 11/12 in the Award Winning Book Challenge


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