Book Review

Review of The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

Johnson, Adam - The Orphan Master's Son (2011 ARC)
Johnson, Adam – The Orphan Master’s Son (2011 ARC) (Photo credit: sdobie)

Pulitzer Prize Winning Novel in 2013

Let me start by saying I’m so glad a winner was chosen this year. Last year, whoever makes this decision decided to not pick a book. I admit I was a little irritated. I actually make it a point to read whatever novel wins the Pulitzer Prize for fiction each year and usually (but not always) it is one of the best books I read each year.

Last year when a book wasn’t chosen, I read about part of the process that goes into choosing this award. I don’t remember 100% how it all worked, but I will say this, if I were one of the people who read / skimmed 300 plus novels to make nominations, I would have been very annoyed that one was ultimately not chosen, especially because it seemed from what I read that many agreed on what book should have won.

As another side note before I review the actual winner from this year, let me also say that I am amazed sometimes at the books that are picked for this and other awards. I tell people (my students, family, friends, and sometimes anyone who will listen) that Literature with a capital “L” should leave a distinct taste in your head while and when you’re done reading it. To me, a Pulitzer Prize winning novel should do that, and I am willing to admit that some of the ones I’ve read don’t leave me with that distinct Literature flavor.

(Let me add at this point, that I believe there is merit to writing that isn’t Literature, but I do believe there is a difference between thought provoking Literature and stories written to entertain. Most novels are read because they’re entertaining, but Literature should also teach you something. Anything. But definitely something.)

And so without any other digressions, my thoughts on The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson…

SPOILER ALERT: This book is written in two parts. The first part tells the story of a young man, Pak Jun Do, who begins his life as the son of a man who runs an orphanage in North Korea. The second part tells the story of a prisoner who kills a commander and takes his place as one of Kim Jong Il’s trusted men.

The first part of this novel sets the stage for the second part, which I felt was the more poignant part of the tale. Before I gush and rave about the second half, let me provide a general feel of the first part. The story quickly moves through Pak Jun Do’s childhood and into his military career; following this, the story moves quickly into his career as a kidnapper and then takes readers into his time aboard a fishing vessel. He is not on the boat as a fisherman; instead, he is there to intercept as many radio transmissions as possible to report back to the authorities. Pak Jun Do’s time aboard the ship is some of the most formative time in his life. I don’t want to give away the whole story, but one very important event happens to him while at sea — he gets a tattoo of Sun Moon, an actress who Kim Jong Il views as his own personal treasure. Many other life altering events occur for Pak Jun Do in part 1, but I don’t want to give away too much of the superbly complex and masterfully woven together narrative of Pak Jun Do’s life.

Setting is the most important element of this novel. Being set in North Korea makes a story that would be completely unbelievable possible. You will have to read it to truly understand why I say that. Think 1984 (which if you haven’t read, you should. Now. Go to the library or buy it for your kindle.)


The society Pak Jun Do is born into doesn’t care about an individual. Loudspeakers are in every home, and daily everyone is told ridiculous and fantastical propaganda that they accept as truth. Every second of every day of their lives is dictated for them, and only fear of being sent to a prison camp keeps most people in line.

Despite the control exerted over individuals, some, like Pak Jun Do, learn to think for themselves. His ability to see opportunity and think on his feet leads to Pak Jun Do assuming the life of Commander Ga. In any other type of society, this plot wouldn’t work, but because his identity isn’t important to the government, they don’t care that he’s an imposter pretending to be one of the top military leaders.

The second half begins as Pak Jun Do steals the life of Commander Ga…

And, the second half of this novel is what makes this story absolutely amazing. The second half of this novel is beautifully constructed. The first part of the novel is told in a rather straight forward linear fashion. Whereas, the second part is separated by distinct shifts in narrator and point of view. The second half juxtaposes the story as told by Pak Jun Do, who is now posing as Commander Ga, the story as told over the loud speakers as propaganda, and a version of events told from the view point of an interrogator. You might be thinking, how does any of that make sense? I assure you, the various viewpoints of this second half are brilliant.

Pak Jun Do manages to pull off the most unthinkable plot — he takes Sun Moon away from Kim Jong Il forever. I don’t want to get into the plot, especially of the second part, because you should read this book (I mean it), but I will say that this novel addresses some wide ranging themes — personal identity in a nation that sees people as expendable, freedom, and true love. All of this and more is intermingled throughout the tale of Pak Jun Do’s personal struggle for freedom in a nation where no one is ever free.

Ultimately, this book is an important read for our time. Our current political tensions with North Korea make this book worth reading. Even though it is a work of fiction, it provides insight about a culture many Americans will never understand.


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