‘The Orphan Master’s Son’ by Adam Johnson

A frightening look into the totalitarian country of North Korea.

Story: Diane Dean

The Bookworm Book Club selected a timely book for this discussion: “The Orphan Master’s Son,” by Adam Johnson, takes place in North Korea. Our facilitator, Beth Hicks, lived in South Korea in the early 1990s. While much has changed since then, her examples of culture, lifestyle, and values of the Korean Peninsula were enlightening. Beth stressed the value Koreans place on respect for and care of the elders in their society. She noted the most important thing to them is to “save face,” to not be insulted or demeaned, to appear less than someone else.

The book reflects other cultural factors, including indoctrination to an attitude of hatred and distrust of the United States. The characters develop an inability to make decisions easily because they are told what to do rather than make their own choices. There is no personal freedom, and the entire family of a defector is likely to be killed or put in prison. The fear of stepping out of line or doing something that could be construed as disrespectful to the “Dear Leader” orchestrates the path of their existence. Beth noted this is “normal” for the Koreans. Some readers wondered, “Who are we to define ‘normal’ for another country’s people?”

The DMZ—demilitarized zone—exists today still under a “truce,” not a peace treaty. The North and South sides meet each week to talk about this. The meetings have gone on for decades. This year’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang County, South Korea, opened a window for talent from the North to participate.

The main character’s name is Jun Do. The similarity to our American name of John Doe was not lost on readers. We read of his growth and experiences, first as a sailor, then a prisoner, then an imposter and husband to a woman he idolized. Yet throughout, Jun Do is loyal to the regime of Kim, the “true orphan master.” The story is told with multiple voices and has a complexity some found confusing.

Because so little is known about the real North Korea today, it is difficult to sort out what might be fiction and what is actually factual. The author stated, “I feel my book is a very accurate portrayal of how the tenets of totalitarianism eat away at the things that make us human: freedom, art, choice, identity, expression, love.”

About the author

Adam Johnson teaches creative writing at Stanford University. He also wrote “Fortune Smiles,” “Emporium,” and “Parasites Like Us.” “The Orphan Master’s Son” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2013.