Adam Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2012) traces the twisted yet fantastical life of a young North Korean nobody called Pak Jun Do (a Korean play off “John Doe”). It received positive reviews (including one from WORLD), but also stirred discussions about how much of its content is true. Few critics disagree that Johnson’s book makes an entertaining read, but should a book about North Korea entertain at all?
Johnson’s interest in North Korea started in 2004, when he first read about the country’s Soviet gulag-style prison camps. As a well-educated professor at Stanford University, Johnson said he was “shocked” at his ignorance—and fascinated by how such brutal concentration camps could still exist in the 21st century without much being done or said about them For more than a year, he read up on North Korea as much as he could, becoming “mildly obsessed” about the subject before he even realized he was writing: “It just came into life.”
Johnson isn’t the first American to author a book about North Korea. But most are nonfiction books that detail the experiences of North Korean defectors. Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14 and Melanie Kirkpatrick’s Escape from North Korea, both released last year, are examples. Their works portray grim snapshots of prison camp life, where campers are worked literally to death on a few handfuls of corn gruel a day.
Fiction allowed Johnson freedom to weave in threads of whimsical humor between gruesome details. Drawing up realistic characters who live in a completely different culture and setting was his biggest challenge. He needed years of concrete research before he could imagine clear scenarios and develop the story of Jun Do, who prowls the streets as an orphan in Chongjin, crawls into the secret tunnels as a patrol rat, paces the Japan coast as a government-assigned kidnapper, suffers whips and electrocution in the interrogation room, and feasts on Southern barbeque with a Texas governor.
Johnson drew inspiration for the kind governor’s wife from his own mother-in-law, a gentle Southern belle who believes there is nothing her prayers and biscuits and gravy can’t solve. That kind of sweet disposition and idealism plays out in a particularly memorable scene where Jun Do interacts with the well-meaning woman, distressed that he is not allowed to take her Bible back home. It’s yet another reminder of how little the world knows and understands about North Korea.