Audiobook Review: The Orphan Master's Son

Have you ever wondered, even a little bit, about the mysterious land of The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea? I mean, what is with all of that darkness? It is really necessary to have a designated demilitarized zone? What the heck was Kim Jung Ill’s problem? Is it REALLY the most Democratic country on EARTH?

I have been sitting here wracking my brain trying to figure out exactly what it was about this book that made it so enjoyable for me since it was actually filled with such oppression, sadness, and human rights violations that to say that I “enjoyed” it seems cruel– maybe FASCINATING is the better word to use! And story telling at its finest– I could not put it down. It tells of events and living conditions that fits in with some of the most “sad but true” stories out there. I realize that this is a work of fiction but it seems that Adam Johnson has done his research and much of this haunting story is based on fact. Bottom line: Communism is CREEPY and leaders with absolute and TOTAL carte blanche power cannot be anything but corrupt. Especially when his all encompassing influence it is being presented “for the good of the people” and as a means for the country’s own “self-reliance”.

The story takes place in 2 parts. The first part introduces you to Pak Jun-Do, a boy who lives in an orphanage with his father (The Orphan Master). Jun Do is constantly insisting that he is NOT an orphan, although he has an orphan’s name and lives an orphan’s life (in the DPRK this means going to work in the mines at a young age, being selected for “special assignments” for the military, learning “skills” such as pain tolerance, kidnapping and radio transmission interception). He lives a fairly sad and lonely life until he finds himself a makeshift family on a “fishing boat” where he eventually must sacrifice his arm to a shark to save face following an American Navy boarding that results in the removal of the mandatory portrait of “The Dear Leader”, Kim Jung Ill. His “heroism” leads to his involvement in a re-con mission to Texas which leads to a series of events that will further complicate his already complicated life. (Wow! lots of “quotations”– in the DPRK things are not always what they seem).

In the second part Jun-Do has assumed the identity of the Minister of Prison Mines, Commander Ga– a known adversary of “The Dear Leader” himself! He is allowed to step right into Commander Ga’s life, a strange world of tai-quan-do, forbidden American movies and a beautiful wife (North Korea’s own national actress, Sun-Moon). This part of the story tells of Jun-Do and his involvement with Sun-Moon and is told from 3 different perspectives– the first is Jun-Do (as Commander Ga)’s own recollection as he sits in a Pyongyang torture prison; the second is his interrogator/torturer’s version as he tries to put the pieces of Commander Ga’s story together (the interrogator believes that the time of torture lies in the past and prefers to think of himself as a “biographer” rather than a “torturer”); the third is the party rhetoric that plays from the propaganda spewing loud-speaker that tells “The Dear Leader’s” version of the events leading up to the disappearance of the people’s beloved actress, Sun-Moon (presented as North Korea’s most winningest story).

This book provides a glance into some of the dark human rights atrocities of the DPRK (replacement husbands, famine, torture, free blood for transfusions that are taken from prisoners as a means of execution, loud speakers installed in every home and public place which constantly blare propaganda about “The Dear Leader”‘s fatherly love, the price to pay for disloyalty, fear mongering by implying the possibility of American “sneak attacks”, random removal of citizens from city streets so that they can be transported to the country to harvest rice crops, orphan children assigned to do the most dangerous of jobs since no family will miss them anyways, the necessity of eating flowers and insects to prevent starvation in a country that proclaims self reliance, electric shock machines that force people to tell “the truth” (The Autopilot), the mandatory “retirement” of North Korea’s elderly, botulism suicides). The story of Jun Do, Sun-Moon, “The Dear Leader” and North Korea will be with you LONG after you have finished reading. A 5 star read for me!

“To me,” Jun Do said, “what everybody gets wrong about ghosts is the notion that they’re  dead. In my experience ghosts are made up only of the living. People you know are out there but are forever out of range.”

A note about the Audiobook: This was one of those audiobooks that was just wonderful in its presentation– there were 3 narrators, one for Jun Do’s stories in both sections, one for the interrogator’s investigation and one for the propaganda spewing loud-speaker. Kim Jung Ill was presented as the caricature that he was– ever the puppet master, fascinated but at the same time intimidated by Americans and their ways. It was the type of audiobook that made you take the long way home so that you could keep listening! There was also an interesting Afterward with the author where he explained a bit about his research into the weird world of the DPRK. So interesting!