Elizabeth B's Reviews > Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West

Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden
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's review
Apr 15, 12

Read in March, 2012

This was not at all what I was expecting. From the marketing material, I expected a story of survival from the North Korean camps that, until now, has been largely untold. Knowing a little about the atrocities of the camp, I expect to this to be an emotionally charged book but, unfortunately, I found it quite the opposite.

From the beginning we learn that Shin is an unreliable narrator. The author is quick to point this out and explain to us how Shin has changed his story repeatedly over the years. The book goes on to prove this by repeatedly telling us Shin's lies and then correcting them. However, by this time, you already have learned not to believe what you read and we have absolutely no reason to believe the "corrected" version is the truth and that Shin won't recount it later. It's pointed out how Shin's previous publication of his story was a dismal failure and perhaps, someone should've taken note on that: it wasn't lack of interest in his story it was an unwillingness to be continually lied to. The author is quick to defend Shin's actions, even using definable psychological terms to explain away Shin's untruths. Unfortunately, most readers (including myself) aren't going to care. Lie to me once, shame on you. Lie to me twice, shame on me.

Aside from being an unreliable narrator, Shin is just not likeable. Unlike so many other stories that have come from tragic world events, Shin has learned nothing from his captivity by the end of the book. He blames the rest of the world, takes advantage of those who offer him assistance, blames his financial failings on those around him rather than taking responsibility for himself. Once in America, he expects people to do for him constantly and, honestly, he just comes off as an ungrateful brat. I don't mean to demean what he has been through - I am certain he has had a horrific life that none of us can imagine. But millions have had tragedies and what makes a story marketable is not the event itself but what the person has taken away from it or what they can teach us from it. In Shin's case by the end of the book, he has learned only to lie continually and be ungrateful...which is not at all a marketable approach to his story.

A bigger problem was the writing style. The author is a journalist by trade so I expected the dry writing of a news article and, in that, I wasn't disappointed. That's exactly what I got. Even in the most dramatic of moments I was left feeling nothing because of the writing style. Before you think this is a story all about Shin, you should know this isn't the case. For each chapter, there is a brief paragraph or two (sometimes we are treated to a whole page!) of Shin's story and then the author spends 7-8 pages telling us facts and figures about something Shin mentioned. It disengages you and reads like a history text rather than an emotional memoir of Shin's journey. Shin's story is merely a catalyst to launch us into a history lesson - not the focal point of an chapter or the book itself as we are lead to believe.

The biggest problem of all, however, is the failure of the author to disclose his own agenda at the beginning. While we are told early on about Shin's untruths, we are not told until midway through the book that the author has a goal of his own with the publication of this novel: clearing up his name. Apparently, the author published a piece on Shin years ago and, it turns out, the information was false. Mistakes happen all the time in journalism and I appreciate that dedicated journalists want to set the record straight once they know they have printed something false. It's a testament to the author's honesty that he wants to correct the misinformation once he learned of it. However, this is not disclosed in the book until midway through. We, as readers, aren't told of the author's own agenda which makes the revelation feel like a complete betrayal of our confidence. This could have been easily fixed: had the author discussed it at the beginning, he would have put the reader on the same footing as himself. We would have felt empathy for him - he put his name on the line, his reputation on the line, and was taken advantage of by the unlikeable Shin. Unfortunately, that never happened. Instead, midway through we are thrown the curve that the author messed up and is now getting the "real" story out there.

So...let's recap. We have a narrator that lies repeatedly and now an author that has his own agenda to clear up the lies he unknowingly wrote years ago. Sound like a mess? Yeah, it is. And messy doesn't equate to good, legitimate reading. This book could have made an interesting newspaper article, I suppose, but as a book it's lacking, biased, and misrepresented. Check it out from the library if you must but don't waste your money on purchase as you may find yourself a regrettable enabler to this whole sordid tale.

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