The Orphan Master's Son, Adam Johnson, Random House Inc, 2012, 443 pp
Sometimes, not too often, but sometimes, an author writes fiction about people and places outside of his own milieu and pulls it off. As far as I can tell, Adam Johnson is not any part Korean, so I was leery about this book, but it is great! He did his research, both reading and trips to North Korea. As he said in interviews, for the rest he used his imagination. For us, who can't know what goes on there, he has told at least part of the story.
The hero was deserted by his mother and raised by his father, who runs an "orphanage" which is in truth a child labor camp. The father dared not show favoritism to his son and so was harder on him than the orphans. But just the fact that Pak Jun Do knows he is not an orphan (worst status of all for a North Korean) gives him a sense of self that carries him through a life of horror and suffering and allows him to be a hero, at least in his own mind.
The first part of the book is about Pak's young life. It is reminiscent of David Copperfield except a hundred times worse. He comports himself well as a young man and rise to some heights in the eyes of the state but more tragedy strikes.
In the second part, a new voice takes over; jolting in the extreme but somehow Johnson made me get over it. This second part was harder to believe because Pak takes on the personality of a legend and the tale gets taller in every chapter. I wondered if Johnson himself became so horrified by the totalitarian oppression that he was compelled to get fantastic in the opposite direction. If North Korea had saints, Pak would be one.
Two things struck me. One is when Pak had a shattering realization about his mother's act of leaving him behind. It was the strongest emotional passage in a story bursting with the full range of human emotion.
The second was the overall assertion that the human spirit is unconquerable. That is one of my cherished beliefs and also a frequent message in fiction. On my cynical days I think the idea is just a daydream I use to make myself feel better. I'm almost afraid I have been played by Adam Johnson, but he did it so well, I am fine with being gullible.
(The Orphan Master's Son is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)