The Orphan Mater’s Son by Adam Johnson takes an amazing look at North Korea, its people and its leaders. While in the opening Johnson states that all people and situations are fictional he also says that the story is based on many interviews and extensive research. So while I am in a bit of quandary about the true intent and meaning of this book, I can tell you that it is interesting, provocative, and well worth the time required to read it. It is long with much detail, there are many names to keep track of, but above all the book comes from many perspectives including that of the narrator who also takes on a variety of personas. The three of these combine to force the reader to read, ponder, step away, and then return with a fresh outlook and open mind.
Johnson masterfully weaves his tale so that even when I felt lost, I also felt “found” as I wound through the intricacies of the story. If even a few facts about life in North Korea are true, it must be extremely difficult (worded very gently) to live under such oppression. The characters are believable and even the tough ones draw out some traces of sympathy. Their understanding of the outside world clarifies, at least in part, why and how they exist within the confines of their country. We take so much for granted in our nation that it is hard to imagine the struggles others face.
There are many tremendous statements in the book but one that really hit my mind is, “Is a destination worth reaching if you can’t recall the journey?” These words match the life of almost every character in the book as each seeks survival and a sense of safety for him/herself and for his/her children. In a regime where existing is a treacherous trial, I wonder if there is even time or energy to consider the journey when the destination is cloudy, murky, and confusing and requires every ounce of strength and focus to keep it clear and seemingly within reach. And it is most likely not within the each of the vast majority of people.
I believe that many people live within this “just get to the end” mindset, ignoring the intriguing and exciting events of the day while they long for the weekend or for vacation or for a new job or for retirement. They are so intently engaged in the possibilities of the future and the dreams and hopes it might possess that they forget to enjoy the moment. In the case of the characters in the book, I think that the mirage-like destination is what provides drive and determination. Glancing side to side might draw up too many horrors and dangers so eyes faced forward might be the best plan of action. But in the world in which most of us live, the side trips and side glances are often the most glorious. The characters and events along the path to our destination offer us the thrills and chills of adventure. This juxtaposition of life surroundings and experiences between the book’s characters and the reader is just one more mind-probing idea the author generates.
The Orphan Master’s Son is an excellent read. I have learned much and my brain has tingled and I have excitedly research to know and understand more. I recommend it to readers who are curious and ready to delve into mysterious waters. It is not for just anyone, though. It is painful in many places and a start-to-finish reading would be excruciating. Stepping away from time to time to regroup allows the reader to plunge on.