The Orphan Master's Son

The Orphan Master's Son

A Novel

Book - 2012
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The Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York Times betselling novel of North Korea: an epic journey into the heart of the world's most mysterious dictatorship.

"Imagine Charles Dickens paying a visit to Pyongyang, and you see the canvas on which [Adam] Johnson is painting here." --The Washington Post

Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother--a singer "stolen" to Pyongyang--and an influential father who runs a work camp for orphans. Superiors in the North Korean state soon recognize the boy's loyalty and keen instincts. Considering himself "a humble citizen of the greatest nation in the world," Jun Do rises in the ranks. He becomes a professional kidnapper who must navigate the shifting rules, arbitrary violence, and baffling demands of his overlords in order to stay alive. Driven to the absolute limit of what any human being could endure, he boldly takes on the treacherous role of rival to Kim Jong Il in an attempt to save the woman he loves, Sun Moon, a legendary actress "so pure, she didn't know what starving people looked like."

Part breathless thriller, part story of innocence lost, part story of romantic love, The Orphan Master's Son is also a riveting portrait of a world heretofore hidden from view: a North Korea rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love.


Named ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR by more than a dozen publications, including The Washington Post * Entertainment Weekly * The Wall Street Journal * Los Angeles Times * San Francisco Chronicle

Praise for The Orphan Master ' s Son

"An exquisitely crafted novel that carries the reader on an adventuresome journey into the depths of totalitarian North Korea and into the most intimate spaces of the human heart." --Pulitzer Prize citation

"Mr. Johnson has written a daring and remarkable novel, a novel that not only opens a frightening window on the mysterious kingdom of North Korea, but one that also excavates the very meaning of love and sacrifice." --Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"Rich with a sense of discovery . . . The Orphan Master's Son has an early lead on novel of [the year]." --The Daily Beast

"This is a novel worth getting excited about." -- The Washington Post

"[A] ripping piece of fiction that is also an astute commentary on the nature of freedom, sacrifice, and glory." -- Elle

Publisher: New York : Random House, 2012
Edition: First edition
ISBN: 9780812992793
Branch Call Number: FIC JOHNSON 2012
Characteristics: 443 pages ; 25 cm


From the critics

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Jan 18, 2020

I no longer want this book. Please erase.

Mar 29, 2019

An emotional tour de force, Pak Jun Do's journey is an amazing revelation of the Byzantine maze of horrors that is modern totalitarianism. That "The Orphan Master's Son" displays some of the most horrendous abuses of the DPRK is almost secondary- this is a tale of the submersion of the human will through blunt application of the propagandist's tools- deception, idol worship, misdirection, repression- and the indomitable impulse to struggle against such coercion.

VaughanPLErin Feb 23, 2019

An emotionally difficult, but rewarding read. While many of the details are from Johnson's imagination, much of his writing is informed by interviews with escapees from North Korea. Combining his research with some artistic liberties, Johnson shows how a totalitarian society and horrendous conditions shape the way human minds and identities are formed.

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson was the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction and it doesn’t disappoint. This is the story of Pak Jun Do; the orphan turned kidnapper turned fishing boat signal operator turned diplomat turned commander. Enter the hidden world of North Korea where propaganda and the authority of the Dear Leader are the only things that can be counted on. I am a bit of a Korea buff so finding this wonderfully written and frighteningly real story was a real treat. I tell friends that if they want to get a sense of North Korea to read this book along with Nothing to Envy: ordinary lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick and Dear Leader: poet, spy, escapee by Jin-Sung Jang. (Submitted by Braden).

RogerDeBlanck Jul 27, 2018

Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son deserves placement on a list of contemporary masterpieces that may include such memorable works as Morrison’s Beloved, McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Robinson’s Gilead, and Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. One measure of great literature is its ability to be life-affirming. Johnson challenges our intellectual foundation and unseats our moral capacity by giving us a terrifying glimpse of life inside North Korea. In doing so, he alters our understanding of the extent of human atrocities and amplifies the power of the human heart.

Told primarily through the experiences of the remarkable character of Pak Jun Do, Johnson allows us to feel the horror and violence of one of the world’s most maniacal regimes. Jun Do’s hard life leaves you full of compassion for the pain and suffering he endures. But even while your heartstrings are wrenched, your pulse will be racing as you take the plight with Jun Do into the darkest machinations of the North Korean government. When cruelty and sorrow seem certain to crush Jun Do, his perseverance and courage grow stronger.

Johnson’s narrative is mind-bending with its bizarre circumstances and shifting voices. It is equally thrilling to find out what will happen next. The story ranges from stylistic elements of satire, adventure, survival, and even romance, but its many layers and dimensions only contribute to its greatness. This novel demands a lot from readers, but the rewards are immense. The Orphan Master’s Son is a feat of literary imagination at the highest rank.

suzannethomas Apr 27, 2018

This 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning work of fiction is a riveting read. A masterful story-teller, the author moves between the absurd to the obscene while describing life in North Korea and how much suffering and deprivation humans can endure while remaining human. A fast paced, political thriller, if you enjoyed “1984”, “Oryx and Crake” or “The Hunger Games”, give this a try.

Apr 10, 2018

Learn something about Korea and read an usual story.

Nov 21, 2017

This is about Pak Jun Do a boy whose father is an illegal child labor enforcer in North Korea. Pak soon takes on his father's role and rises through the ranks but because of impossible demands from his superiors, he soon becomes enemies with the dictator Kim Jong Il. But then risks it all to be with the woman he loves, an actress. This book didn't really explore some aspects that I was hoping it would, and when I first picked it up I thought it was going to be from the perspective of one of the actual child slaves escaping. The story itself was very well written, but I wouldn't recommend it to someone else.
- @Florence of the Teen Review Board of the Hamilton Public Library

Sep 13, 2017

I recently "tried" to read this book and found it to be poorly written and dreadfully boring not to mention that it was an awful subject. My question is: How did a book like the win the Pulitzer prize? I find that there have been some very obscure books that I picked up and read and really enjoyed and then a prize winning book I can't get through more than 100 pages before putting it down because I just can't plow through it any longer.
I don't recommend this book.

Mar 30, 2017

An unimaginable world, beautifully expressed in words.

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Jun 19, 2015

katrinalp01 thinks this title is suitable for 15 years and over


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Aug 23, 2016

Johnson's narrative portrays his hero as he makes his way through a minefield of corruption and violence, eventually giving his all so that his loved ones might have a better life. VERDICT Readers who enjoy a fast-paced political thriller will welcome this wild ride through the amazingly conflicted world that exists within the heavily guarded confines of North Korea. Highly recommended


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