The Orphan Master's son is about comprehending the lengths to which human beings living under the yoke of servitude must go in order to survive. The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson tells the tale of two North Korean men, Pak Jun Do, the main character, a professional kidnapper for the Pyongyang regime trained to fight in the dark, and a secondary character known as the Interrogator, whose path crosses with Jun Do after he assumes a dead man's identity. Set against the backdrop of a totalitarian society whose stark realities are reminiscent of science fiction dystopia, this Pulitzer Prize winning novel attempts to comprehend the lengths to which human beings living under the yoke of servitude must go in order to survive.
The son of an opera singer who was “stolen” to Pyongyang—as is the case with many professionals such as doctors, artists, scientists, etc., who are kidnapped from other Asian countries by North Korean squads—and a high status father who runs a work camp for orphans called Long Tomorrows, Jun Do takes up great issue throughout the novel with being referred to as an orphan. This is explained by the fact that orphans are regarded as fodder for manual labor, and are generally not respected in North Korean society. Jun Do considers himself to be worth more than that.
As a professional kidnapper working for the Pyongyang regime, Jun Do must navigate the ever-shifting procedures set out by his superiors in order to avoid detention and death. During the first third of the book, Jun Do is out at sea, serving on a fishing vessel in a coterie of spies. When one of his crew defects, however, Jun Do and his shipmates, for fear that the deserter's family will be killed for his misdeeds, attempt to cover up his tracks. Jun Do lets himself be partially mauled by a shark in order to stage a heroic tale of death and martyrdom, in which he attempted, and failed, to save his comrade from being torn apart.
Though at first he is subjected to violent interrogation by members of the Pyongyang regime who doubt his story, his deeds are eventually regarded with respect, and he is sent on a delegation to America with aims of reclaiming the Great Leader's (Kim Jong Il) yacht. Since it was confiscated by the regime's prominent enemy, the American military, in international waters, the Great Leader is obsessed with getting it back. When Jun Do arrives in America, he is confronted by a society full of pluralism and social mobility. Certain differences begin to stand out in particular, such as the manner in which members of the Senatorial delegation that welcomes him treat their dogs; dogs are regarded as savage by the Great Leader himself, and thus ordered to be regarded as savage by North Korean society as a whole.
The aims of the delegation fail, and Jun Do's mission is unable to retrieve the yacht. For this, he is sent to a prison camp upon return. There, he is supervised by a famous military strongmen named Commander Ga. Ga takes interest in Jun Do, and opens himself up to him on a basis of mutual admiration and friendship based on a tattoo Jun Do possesses. In order to escape, Jun Do takes Commander Ga's life and, fleeing the camp, assumes his identity. When he returns to society, the Interrogator is assigned to Jun Do/Ga's in order to transcribe his biography—a common practice. The Interrogator's life is in many ways like that Jun Do's. His life of servitude to the North Korean regime in order to decrease the violent nature of interrogation (carried out by members of a generational group known as the Pubyok), he has lost faith in his ability to change anything within his homeland. The Great Leader Kim Jong Il himself, meanwhile, becomes interested in using Jun Do's assumed identity for his own propaganda purposes.
As these events unfold, Jun Do/Commander Ga returns to Ga's former wife, Sun Moon, a famous, yet aging and out-of-work actress who is instructed by the Great Leader to accept Jun Do as the real Commander Ga. Though she knows he is not her husband, she learns to love Jun Do for who he is, and eventually agrees to have him help her escape North Korea with an American delegation slated to visit the country in the coming weeks.
The final pages involve Jun Do/Commander Ga setting up the operations to smuggle Sun Moon and her two children out of North Korea. Although he succeeds in seeing them out in food aid canisters, he himself is caught. The Interrogator, attempting to save his own parents from being sent to a labor camp as a consequence for their old age, feeds them peaches tainted with botulism. He then hooks both himself and Jun Do up to a dangerous machine called ‘the autopilot' that is supposed to wipe their memories clean. The Interrogator simply wants to have his brain rerouted so that he can live a simple life on a work farm. Jun Do, however, sets the machine to its highest setting, so that he'll be extricated from North Korean society as a whole. He has no wish to return.
Best part of story, including ending:
I love this book because it really gets inside what it might be like to live in a totalitarian society. The characters are as much victims in their own persecution as they are offenders.
Best scene in story:
I love the scene where the fishing boat Jun Do is crewing discovers a cache of mint condition Nike shoes in a bay. They have to eventually discard them in order to fabricate a story for Pynongyang, but the way the author describes the characters' treatment of the shoes is astounding.
Opinion about the main character:
I like how he is torn between country and freedom. He was trained to fight in the dark, and that's basically what he did his entire life: fight in the dark and hope to land a blow.