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Pulitzer Book Club Inclusion Guide


"The Orphan Master's Son" by Adam Johnson



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Novel is the product of seven years of research, including study of North Korean defector transcripts posted online by NGO and aid workers and a five-day trip to North Korea where it is illegal for foreigners to interact with citizens of North Korea. Adam Johnson was in born in South Dakota, grew up in Arizona and is a Stanford professor who lives in San Francisco.


Janice Waldman,
Solebury, PA

Featured Reader

If freedom is essential to inclusion, then the absence of freedom, as in the dictatorship of North Korea, equates to non-inclusion. Orphan Master's Son is a story about an orphan's struggle for survival in North Korea told through three narrators: a third person account, the propaganda version of Commander Ga and Sun Moon's Story. While everyone in North Korea struggles, none struggle as much as the orphan Jun Do who like all orphans in North Korea is considered the lowest class. The orphans were used as slave labor and often given the most difficult and dangerous jobs, "Then sleep communal, a hundred boys bunked four tiers deep, all their common exhaustion articulated as a singularity. It was nothing short of belonging, a feeling that wasn't particularly profound or intense, it was just the best he tended to get." Jun Do manages to transcend his trauma in the end by finally feeling a sense of responsibility for Sun Moon and her children and ultimately sacrifices his own life for the family he loves. By saving them, he realizes his mother, "hadn't left him behind, she'd saved him from what was ahead." He feels he was saved so that he in turn could save Sun Moon and her children.

Looking at the seven pillars of inclusion as it pertains to the Orphan Master's Son:
1. Access or presence of a welcoming environment-nonexistent in a dictatorship.
2. Attitude or willingness to embrace inclusion- In North Korea, the only attitude that counts is that of Kim Jong I1.
3. Choice- In North Korea, the populace has no choice regarding any aspect of their lives.
4. Partnership- Kim Jong I1 in Orphan Master uses a carrot and stick form of manipulation. He makes it appear as though he's forming partnerships when he's actually exerting ultimate control. Even the partnerships between husband and wife, and parent and child, have been eroded because of the mistrust created by family members turning each other in to the secret police.
5. Communication- In Orphan Master's Son the people of North Korea only know what they are told through propaganda. They don't have any uncensored media, they are unable to travel freely, and they do not communicate with their family members in South Korea. Therefore, they have no concept of what's happening outside of North Korea. Plays and operas are all written by Kim JongI1.
6. Policy- Policy is determined solely by Kim Jong I1.
7. Opportunity-There is only one ethnicity in North Korea. There is an elite class mostly consisting of military. Men have more power than women. Beautiful women have greater opportunity than unattractive women and are sent to the capital and married to high-ranking members of the military or made part of Kim Jong I1's "pleasure troupe". Parents and their children get sent to workcamps together for any infraction of the rules committed by any member of the family.

It would be interesting to think about the spectrum of inclusion. Would we see that the more freedom or choice people in a society have relates to its level of inclusion? Are societies that are more homogenous less or more inclusive? How does inclusion relate to the absolute number of resources a country has? Do richer countries do better than poorer ones with inclusivity? Do Western countries view inclusion differently than Eastern countries?

In conclusion, Adam Johnson did a brilliant job portraying various characters in this book who all were traumatized by the oppressive Kim Regime. As Johnson says, "North Korea is a trauma narrative on a national scale...the real mistake would have been to force this story into a shape that conformed to a Western reader's expectations." " We'll know the true way to write a novel set in North Korea when North Korean novelists become free to tell their own stories."
Janice Waldman’s Inclusive Cause: The Color of Change


Abused North Korean orphan assumes identity of high profile commander


Hmm, which trauma to choose? Shark attack, starvation, kidnapping, lobotomies performed with a nail? Let’s go with murder via blood harvesting.


Insight into the interior lives and sense of identity of people in North Korea who have little control over their daily life or future.


Relentlessly heartbreaking content can make the 443 pages or 15 CDs (19 ½ hours) feel longer.


Truth. See who you really are and how people in your society actually live.


The Dear Leader and his circle have the power and resources to oppress, abuse, and misinform the rest of the country. Orphans are targets of extreme discrimination; belief that homosexuals should be eliminated. America portrayed as a greedy, culturally-insensitive, unsophisticated world where people eat with their hands and sleep with dogs.


Don’t serve those delicious improperly canned peaches with botulism you’ve been saving. Go into the woods (or a snobby store) and glean ingredients for a delicate soup but do not snare a bird.


“Ga thought of how difficult it was to see yourself and see the lies that allowed you to function.”


Rowboat or fishing boat or somewhere in the shadow of an opera house.


What order have you obeyed that you regret following?
What kind of programming have you received or done?
How should lies be treated by the news media and social media in light of freedom of speech?
What propaganda has the U.S. government propagated?
How do you feel about a U.S. relationship with the North Korea and immigration based on what happened in this novel?


Since a trip to Pyongyang or pretty much anywhere in North Korea is not in the cards, go to Texas or pretend via YouTubes. Ride in a vintage convertible, learn to use a weed-wacker, shop for boots, eat barbeque, and learn how to communicate with the CIA. Pass on target practice, a branding demo, and faux tiger meat.


"TV/Film adaptation not found."


Read some non-fiction about North Korea and accounts of defectors online. “Fortune Smiles” 2016 by Adam Johnson

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