The Orphan Master's Son
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The Orphan Master's Son

4.04 of 5 stars 4.04  ·  rating details  ·  28,289 ratings  ·  5,183 reviews
An epic novel and a thrilling literary discovery, The Orphan Master’s Son follows a young man’s journey through the icy waters, dark tunnels, and eerie spy chambers of the world’s most mysterious dictatorship, North Korea.

Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother—a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang—and an influential father who runs Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans....more
Hardcover, 443 pages
Published January 10th 2012 by Random House (first published 2012)
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The Fault in Our Stars by John GreenInsurgent by Veronica RothCity of Lost Souls by Cassandra ClareGone Girl by Gillian FlynnPandemonium by Lauren Oliver
Best Books of 2012
62nd out of 2,960 books — 9,201 voters
The Fault in Our Stars by John GreenGone Girl by Gillian FlynnTell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka BruntThe Round House by Louise ErdrichThe Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
2013 Tournament of Books Watch List
5th out of 63 books — 362 voters


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Community Reviews

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Joshua Nomen-Mutatio
Jul 09, 2012 Joshua Nomen-Mutatio rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommended to Joshua Nomen-Mutatio by: Mike Reynolds
Shelves: dystopic, fiction
CITIZENS, gather 'round the individualistic screens of your capitalistically-exploited folding-computers and other pocket-sized computational devices! The Dear Reviewer has much omniscient wisdom and many synoptic truths to impart! Set aside your Facebook and Twitter feeds and summon every last ounce of patriotic love for and devotion to the Democratic People’s Republic of Goodreads in order to focus your cluttered Western minds and screen-worn eyes for several uninterrupted minutes on this upda...more
Nataliya
This is not an easy book to read. It preys on the minds of readers, on the fears and hopes that stem from our deeply ingrained cultural concepts, our habitual comfortable worldview. It takes you to the place where you can no longer be sure what is based in reality and what is the result of an absurdist deeply satirical interpretation of it.

This is a book that's set in North Korea, and its protagonist is cleverly - perhaps overly so - named Jun Do (that is, 'John Doe', the North Korean everyman,...more
Shawn
"The Orphan Master's Son Has No Clothes" -- I'd love to take credit for coming up with that beautifully stated, extremely accurate summing up of this awful, awful book, but I can't. I suppose, if nothing else, I can boast having married the man who did.
I wasn't 30 pages into this farce (and I'm not speaking of the story stylings) when it became quite clear that all the praise being heaped upon this pile of literary poo (I am forever mindful that kids may be reading these reviews) was the work o...more
Steve
Literature is a fiction that tells a greater truth – so somebody wise once said. But the truth is a tricky business. This epic story set in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (that’s the bad one) offers frequent reminders of that fact. First, there’s the question of where the genuinely dire straits of North Koreans end and the semi-satirical abstractions begin. Did Johnson exaggerate the atrocities? Did his fiction indeed tell a greater truth? Then there’s a related question about Jun Do,...more
Stephen King
In a stunning feat of imagination, Johnson puts us inside Jun Do (yep, John Doe), a North Korean orphan who stumbles from poverty to a job as body double for a Hero of the Eternal Revolution. The closed world of North Korea revealed here—where businessmen are conscripted to work in the rice fields and the ruthless Kim Jong-il is still the Dear Leader—goes beyond anything Orwell ever imagined. The Orphan Master’s Son veers from cold terror to surrealistic humor with ease, and succeeds as both a t...more
Kemper
If I wasn’t glad that Kim Jong Il is dead before reading this book, I certainly am now.

Pak Jun Do never knew his mother and is raised in the orphanage his father runs. Because of this, he is constantly mistaken for an orphan for the rest of his life. Eventually Jun Do winds up as one of the tunnel fighters who work in secret passages under the DMZ into South Korea, but he’s recruited to be part of a team that goes out in boats and snatches random citizens from Japanese or South Korean beaches. F...more
RandomAnthony
If Mike Reynolds hadn't raved about this book I probably wouldn't have read it. Here's his review:

http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...

I'm glad I read The Orphan Master's Son, however, so thanks, Mike.

Why wouldn't I have read this novel without Mike's recommendation? Well, I'm leery of any book about another culture that hints of an uplifting, inspirational tale about overcoming obstacles or whatever. I hate that shit. It's not that I hate feeling uplifted but those stories, in my eyes, tend...more
Miles
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Trish
This very long, very dark, and highly imaginative work by Adam Johnson forces upon the reader a series of distasteful sensations, only a few of which are horror, fury, hatred, injustice, and revenge. But by the end, one also experiences hope, compassion, sincerity, integrity, and love. Thoughts surface, submerge, roil in the mind during the days spent reading this huge novel, leaving one as drained and unsettled after a session with it as if one had “eaten bitterness.” Welcome to North Korea. If...more
Sarah
This is a hideously beautiful, harrowing work of imagination. It's hard to tell which atrocities come from the mind of the writer and which are real. It illuminates a North Korea that seems all too real, while telling the story of a man whose feats of survival would turn him into a folk hero in any other context. This is an excellent book but not easy or light reading.
ETA: I keep thinking about the fact that Jun Do chooses his own identity from the beginning. Is he ever told he's the orphan mas...more
Janet
Just starting this--so far it's absolutely ripping. Saw Johnson on a panel, talking about 9/11, Ten Years After, with Steve Erickson and Dana Goodyear and LA Times book critic David Ulin--and he held his own with that stellar company, and then some. Funny, when I saw him before the panel, I didn't know who he was, thought he was somebody's friend, maybe a bouncer at some kind of rough nightspot or someone who worked with prison youth-- until he sat down at the table, and started talking. Jaw-dro...more
Abby
There are many books I've loved, many writers I've admired, some whose talent has been awe-inspiring. But it's not often that I read a novel wondering “how the hell did he/she do that?” This is one of those times. How did Adam Johnson imagine his way into the dystopia of Kim Jong-Il's North Korea and create a world so real to the reader that when Americans show up, they seem oddly alien?

The book is darkly comic and desperately sad, always teetering on the brink of complete absurdity but true in...more
switterbug (Betsey)
Adam Johnson writes with authority about the essentially unknown North Korean culture and civilization. Kim Jong Il's force-fed propaganda controls the people so consummately that their identities are squeezed from their minds and replaced with a state-sponsored life and perspective. The life of a North Korean is not the pursuit of happiness or self-actualization. It is solely to survive, like an insect or a rodent. To live, you must become a shell, an unquestionably loyal nationalist.

What Johns...more
Elaine
I don't understand the accolades this book has been getting. I did read it during a week of awful flu, and the slowness of getting into it may have been partly attributable to that. It's certainly clever, and Johnson is nothing if not inventive.

But I couldn't get past the use of North Korea as a setting, which seemed like a meretricious trick to me. There's certainly a lot of superficial North Korean trappings, loudspeakers, prison mines, references to starvation, and the theater of Kim Jong I...more
Melanie

I realized that in my excitement after reading this novel, I had not stopped and taken the time to add a few words about the experience. I rushed to add my five stars to the mix and then stepped back.

The fact is I didn't know where to start and I did not want to spoil anything. I have a feeling that getting immersed into this book without knowing anything of the plot must make it an even more dazzling literary experience. Its colorful and surreal world should be entered without any preconceptio...more
Chrissie
I have listened to half of this audiobook, and now I refuse to waste m my time anymore!

Do you enjoy political satire? Then this book will be right up your alley. But I don’t.

Do you enjoy a puzzle? Would it be intriguing to you to figure out what is fantasy and what is real? Again, if you answer in the affirmative, you will most probably enjoy this book. Me, I like to have a firm handle on the events. I want to understand what is definitely happening. You see in North Korea what Kim Jong Il sai...more
Diane Yannick
I was obsessed with getting to the end of this book quickly. It wasn't because I loved reading it but because I was so sick of feeling like I was entrapped in a demented world. This story imposed scenes onto my brain that reappeared in dreams. Only great books have this power.

The author opened my eyes to North Korean culture through a fictional narrative based on factual research. Throughout the story a loudspeaker was used to disseminate propaganda throughout Korean homes. Kim Jong-il, the rec...more
Stuart
OK, two things. Yes, I got a free signed copy of this thing from Adam Johnson's editor via Goodreads (Thank you!). Yes, Adam Johnson teaches a mile from my home and is, besides being a first-rate author, a good egg. But neither of those facts bias me about this book, honest. This is one crazy, ambitious, well-written novel. It's one of the best books I've read in the last few years.

The Orphan Master's Son is about the dystopian world of North Korea today. One might think you'd have to know a bit...more
Nancy Oakes
It is just possible that I've found the novel that come next December I'll be listing as my favorite book of the year. Go ahead -- scoff or do the eyeroll if you so choose, but this book has just set the bar for my reading year. With this novel, the prose, the characters, the story and the author's imagining of life under totalitarian rule in North Korea all combine to produce the literary equivalent of the perfect storm in my reading universe.

While getting my thoughts together and perusing the...more
Tony
I had misgivings as to even starting this book. A burly Caucasian fella, a Stanford professor no less, feels he can set a novel in North Korea, a place where burly Caucasian guys don't exactly have the run of the ranch; an author who names his three children: Jupiter, James Geronimo and Justice Everlasting. The book he names The Orphan Master's Son, which sounded to me like the spit'em-out ( fill in the occupation )'s Daughter. And then it's also a bestseller, with over 20,000 GR ratings as I wri...more
Richard Cezar
EVOCATIVE

It’s hard to imagine that this book is entirely fiction. It is as fragmented and terrorizing as real life can be at times. North Korean Loudspeakers blare out the Communist “party line”, while different points of view come shooting in from multiple directions. The narrative is sometimes stultifying. I didn't read it all at one sitting and had to re-read to follow the multifaceted journey that is Jun Do’s (aka John Doe) life.
The average American who hasn't experienced cultures outside th...more
Ian
What strikes me as most impressive about The Orphan Master's Son is that Adam Johnson, an American novelist, has (as far as I can tell) successfully depicted the shadowy world of North Korea as though it were his native land. He describes the totalitarian country's orphanages, prisons, fishing boats, etc. as though he himself had been privy to such experiences.

I found Johnson to be particularly careful when dealing with oppressive propaganda which is portrayed mostly in the daily "news" (i.e., w...more
K
How do you rate a book that leaves you befuddled for the first 300 pages and then enraptured for the last 150?

This book was a strange experience. I started out listening to it on audio and found myself completely unable to follow it. The character's in an orphan home. The character's a kidnapper. Wait a minute -- the character's on a ship -- how did he get there? And the rowers -- where do they come into this? Suddenly there are shoes, and Americans boarding the ship, and some kind of problem......more
Steve
The Orphan Master’s Son is an impressive feat of scope and scale, with both the unfamiliar (to American readers) setting of North Korea and an epic love story to drive it. I expect it will garner lots of critical praise, award nominations, and sales, and it probably deserves to. But for reasons that are, I suspect, more about personal taste than issues with the novel itself, it didn’t quite work for me though it did keep me engaged all the way to the end, apart from a lapse in the middle due to...more
Barbara
Although I am more than half way through reading this, I am seriously considering abandoning this book. I am at a loss to explain its popularity. Most who read my reviews know that I am no stranger to fiction and non-fiction writings on war and holocaust. However, I am feeling physically ill reading much of the gratuitous descriptions of beatings, injuries, abuse, deprivation and complete lack of any humanity within these pages. I am not a squeamish individual , but there is little relief throug...more
Michael
Very moving story of what it means to be human in a world of North Korean society where Big Brother reigns and life is cheap. Had to let this one sit for a week before reviewing it so I could try to get some perspective.

Like a lot of Holocaust literature, it is not a novel you can recommend without reservation. The main character, Jun Do has had to participate in many reprehensible actions, starting from his boyhood in the orphanage that his father managed and later in his work on a government...more
Cheryl
“And don’t forget citizens: the ban on stargazing is still in effect.”

In the powerful non-fiction book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, a satellite photo shows South Korea heavily lit up, but North Korea in almost complete blackness.
A scene in this book is a riff on that photo, as imagined by a North Korean: “The American citizen, however, is wide awake. You should see a satellite photo of that confused nation at night—it’s one grand swath of light, glaring with the sum of their...more
Stephen
If books can be passports to other places, then "The Orphan Master's Son" gains you entree to the forbidden land of North Korea.

Of course, you have to be open to that sort of thing, and should in this case.

The author, Adam Johnson, as per his own account, bathed in North Korean culture, history and politics until they were expunged from his being in the form of characters. He traveled to the strange land of Kim Il Sung, smelled it, saw it, breathed it, and lived to come back and put it all dow...more
Jana
UPDATE: 4/15/13
The Orphan Master's Son just won the Pulitzer*. Congratulations Adam Johnson! I have not stopped thinking about it in the year + since I read it. I believe it is one of those books that I can say has changed my thinking. As a bonus, I am so happy to have had the pleasure of meeting the author last October. More than meeting him: sitting at table for the better part of an hour discussing his book, teaching, kids, and life in general. The Orphan Master's Son deserved this award.
*It...more
LeeAnne

Truth is stranger than fiction, and more interesting too, especially in this case.

Isn't it ironic that a satire written about the lunacy of everyday life in North Korea, caused in part by the relentless use of deception and lies (fiction), ends up being a dull read, when it is compared to real-life journalistic (non-fiction) accounts of the same subject?

The premise of this novel sounded electrifying: an inside peek at the militant, repressive tyranny of North Korea seen through the eyes of Jun...more
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Adam Johnson was born in South Dakota and raised in Arizona. He earned a BA in Journalism from Arizona State University in 1992; a MFA from the writing program at McNeese State University, in 1996; and a PhD in English from Florida State University in 2000. Johnson is currently a San Francisco writer and associate professor in creative writing at Stanford University.

He founded the Stanford Graphi...more
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“But people do things to survive, and then after they survive, they can't live with what they've done.” 32 likes
“Where we are from... [s]tories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he'd be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.” 23 likes
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