The 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was recently awarded to The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. Normally, I wouldn’t run right out to read the latest winner, but this one was familiar to me. Ann and Michael, the hosts of my favorite book podcast, Books on the Nightstand, had loved this novel, and I remembered hearing them both praise it in a podcast earlier this year. So, I requested it from the library and must have been ahead of the crowd because there was no wait list. I am so glad that I read it right away because this novel blew me away.
First a word of warning: if all I’d heard of this book was a plot summary, I probably never would have read it. In fact, I was only a few pages into the novel and had learned that it was about a young boy in North Korea who is forced to join the army, and I wondered whether I was going to like it or if this would be one of those literary novels that are just plain boring. I needn’t have worried. Adam Johnson has created a fascinating world and an intriguing main character, and his writing just pulls the reader into the middle of the story. I never wanted it to end.
So, I’ll tell you about the plot, but there is so much more to this story than meets the eye. Pak Jun Do has been brought up in an orphanage (aka children’s labor camp) in North Korea by his father who runs the orphanage. He spends his whole life explaining to people that no, he is not an orphan, but no one believes him because he has an orphan’s name and grew up in an orphanage. His mother, a singer, was taken away – as are most beautiful women in North Korea – to the capital city of Pyongyang when he was very young, and his father was physically present but emotionally absent, wracked with despair over his wife’s absence.
At fourteen, Pak Jun Do and the orphans are conscripted into the army to save them all from starvation during a terrible famine in North Korea. From there, his life continues through many different stages, from a tunnel fighter as a teen to a kidnapper to eventually, through an amazing twist of fate, working alongside Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader himself. The details of Pak Jun Do’s various horrible jobs and of daily life in North Korea are both captivating and terrible.
The entire novel is absolutely gripping. It probably sounds depressing from this plot description – and parts of it are sad – but its overall tone is optimistic because Pak Jun Do is a wonderful man who never loses hope of a better life. In fact, at one point, his wildest dreams come true. Certainly parts of his story are horrifying and violent, but one part of the novel – when a group of North Koreans visit Texas – had me laughing out loud.
This is an emotionally moving story, and you soon find yourself rooting for Pak Jun Do and hoping he can somehow escape to a better life. I was even talking out loud to the book (always a good sign!), alternating “Nooo!” with “Oh, good.” The ending is both happy and sad at the same time. Johnson is a masterful writer who pulls the reader into the center of the story and never lets go, until the final word. I couldn’t wait to find out what happened to Pak Jun Do and also never wanted his story to end. A novel this good is a rare find.
443 pages, Random House
Here is a list of all of the Pulitzer Prize Winners for Fiction since 1948 - I've read 9 of the 59 novels - I better get busy!