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The Orphan Master's Son

4.05  ·  Rating details ·  90,299 ratings  ·  10,038 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 orp
Hardcover, 443 pages
Published January 10th 2012 by Random House
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Jana I read some interviews with the author who addressed this question. His depiction of N Korea is based on interviews with defectors and a personal visi…moreI read some interviews with the author who addressed this question. His depiction of N Korea is based on interviews with defectors and a personal visit to the DPRK. He admits that accurate information is extremely hard to come by because it's only as good as the witness giving it, which we all know is subjective. As for what he observed on his visit to DPRK, his visit was tightly controlled and completely orchestrated by his hosts to show what they wanted to show. Johnson was unable to speak to anyone who had not been coached & trained on how to speak to Americans. Some of the propaganda included in the novel was straight out of newspapers from DPRK. He also said that people from Pyongyang never talk to outsiders and do not defect so very little is known about their lives. Consequently, most of the details of the life of the interrogator were made up. With that character, Johnson wanted to explore what secrecy and paranoia can do to family relationships. The work details were something Johnson witnessed on his visit, but he also said that Pyongyang is filled with the nation's elite and they lead largely normal lives. He saw families out having picnics and people socializing in the city. If you do an internet search for interviews with Adam Johnson, you can read more about the subject. He is very forthcoming about what is fact & fiction.(less)
Carolyn Lind I considered quitting very early in the book; I didn't. And by the end was ready to give it a top rating.

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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
Joshua Nomen-Mutatio
May 29, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Joshua Nomen-Mutatio by: Mike Reynolds
Shelves: fiction, dystopic
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
Jun 05, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2013-reads
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,
Jan 01, 2012 rated it did not like it
"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
May 03, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Read it quick before North Korea decides you can't.

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 rando
Michael Finocchiaro
Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son defies categories and captives the reader's attention end to end. We are brought face to face with the brutal inhumanity of the Kim Jong Il dictatorship (which the author visited and tried to depict as accurately as possible given the lack of defectors and their testimony). But the even deeper story was how much suffering and deprivation humans can endure while remaining human.
For another interesting take on North Korea, I would highly recommend Guy Delisle
May 08, 2013 rated it it was ok
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Feb 01, 2013 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2013
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
Apr 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is just flat-out brilliant. An amazing imaginative leap into an unknowable country, one that feels so granular, so meticulously envisioned, that it blew me away. There is both heft and humor here.
Apr 08, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: modern-lit, read-2017
I have to be honest, I found this one a bit of a struggle, and I expected more from a Pulitzer prize winner.

Johnson's ambition in setting his novel in the closed and surreal world of North Korea is clear. For me this never quite succeeded in being more than a series of set pieces based on the snippets of truth that have emerged, acted out by ciphers who never quite become convincing characters. This may partially be excused as a reflection of the impossibility of maintaining humanity in such a
Jun 07, 2012 rated it it was amazing
If Mike Reynolds hadn't raved about this book I probably wouldn't have read it. Here's his review:

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
Jan 19, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Jul 23, 2012 rated it liked it
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
Apr 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jonathan Ashleigh
Dec 11, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: recent
At a certain point I almost put this book down because I thought the only character I cared about was gone. But I was immersed and impressed a few pages later when that character was reintroduced under new circumstances. This book is a real-life 1984, interspersed with facts about North Korea. Even though many scenarios were far fetched, this work of fiction was engaging and gave me a newfound interest in North Korea; I have already bought another book about the DPRK.

One of my favorite moments
Jul 31, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: aere-perennius, 2013
“In my experience, ghosts are made up only of the living, people you know are out there but are forever out of range”
― Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master's Son


One of my favorite novels of the year, and definitely my favorite novel set primarily in North Korea (I've read four others, or five). This is one of those contemporary novels like The Son by Meyer or Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang, or Udall's The Lonely Polygamist that delivers almost everything I search for in a book: originality,
Feb 07, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Don't Give Up, You're Not Beaten Yet

After buying this book, I read 75 pages and gave up, thinking it was too dark and foreign for me to like. Some time after the novel won the Pulitzer Price in Fiction for 2013, I decided to start over and nearly gave up again around the same point, but decided to keep reading to page 100. Somewhere around page 85, I was intrigued, and by page 100, I could not put the book down.

Now, I cannot laud The Orphan Master's Son highly enough to do it justice. Its excell
The book is undoubtedly written by a master word smith. It is a tour de force through a dark plot and story line. The author spent several years researching the book, including visiting the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea). I find the word 'democratic extremely out of place and ironic here, as most other people would do, but won't indulge in any comment about it. Looking in from the outside with no knowledge of a people and a country, might not be the right place or time to co ...more
Sep 17, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2020
Fascinating peek into a surreal world of continuous propaganda bombardment and state-orchestrated gaslighting propping up a cult of personality. Nothing like this could happen in a western democracy…..
LeAnne: GeezerMom
Aug 10, 2013 rated it it was amazing
UPDATE... On sale for $1.99 today! This tale has a pervasively ominous tone and doesn't have a story book ending. If you're a casual reader who's in it just for enjoyment, skip it - unless you find the whole idea of what goes on in North Korea rather fascinating. This is fictional, but the details are based on real accounts from survivors and escapees. Blew my doors off.
This novel was mesmerizing to me, like a nightmare that is so bizarre that, despite its ugliness, you don't wan
Oct 15, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Kelly (and the Book Boar)
Find all of my reviews at:

“A John Doe has an exact identity. It’s just yet to be discovered.”

Well looky looky I completed the Winter Reading Challenge and received my major award . . . .

My final stop on my “Passport to Everywhere” was everyone’s favorite dream vacay destination . . . .

And with a Pulitzer Winner even! I know what you’re thinking, and my response to you is . . .

Or not because I read this one supah wrong and thought it was boooo
Nenia ✨️ Socially Awkward Trash Panda ✨️ Campbell

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DNF @ p.179

There are two kinds of books my mom gives me: books she genuinely enjoyed and books she got bored with and thought I might like to hate-review before chucking them into the donation box. Usually she tells me which is which before she gives them to me, but not always, and THE ORPHAN MASTER'S SON was one of these books. I was excited to read this initially because it won the Pulitzer Prize and it's about North Korea, and if you
Diane Yannick
Mar 07, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Matthew Quann
There's been times when I've read a novel that I've loved so much that I struggle to articulate my thoughts in anything other than exclamations, growls, and excessive hand gestures. It's sort of like running into a person at a party who is too drunk but seems to have vital information to relay, but for books. Book drunk, I guess.

So, when I finished The Orphan Master's Son yesterday afternoon, pondered about it all evening, and found it still rolling it around in my brain before sleep I knew tha
Nancy Oakes
Jan 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
switterbug (Betsey)
Oct 07, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Elyse  Walters
Feb 07, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Too many other great reviews you can read....

... I need some serious sleep!


..... I had put this book off --(kept waiting for the mood 'to strike')

--I wasn't expecting to like this book as much as I did. (I thought it was for those 'other' people) ---
but 'WOW' was not ONLY the masterpiece many people said it was ---

Feb 27, 2012 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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
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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

Articles featuring this book

His Favorite Books About North Korea: Peek inside one of the world's most secretive countries in The Orphan Master's Son and try these recs from...
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“But people do things to survive, and then after they survive, they can't live with what they've done.” 91 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.” 39 likes
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