I'm making progress on my goal to read all the Pulitzer Prize winners in fiction! I recently completed the 2013 winner, The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson. (Warning - there are some spoilers in my review below.)
This book is divided in to two parts. The first part tells the story of Jun Do, a boy in North Korea who is raised in an orphanage by his father, the Orphan Master. Jun Do is conscripted into the North Korean Army at a very young age and works for a while in the tunnels under the DMZ (demilitarized zone) between North and South Korea. He is then assigned to work for the government kidnapping people from other countries, and finally he serves as a radio operator on a fishing boat where he intercepts and relays transmissions. He becomes a "hero" based on a concocted story to cover up the fact that one of his shipmates tried to run away. He gets beat up as the government tries to get the real story out of him, and he is finally sent to prison.
The second part of the story is about Jun Do as well, however through a bizarre series of events he has taken on the identity of a famous Commander simply by claiming to be him. It's actually kinda funny how many of the people around him during this section continue to propagate this story that he is the Commander. He (well, the Commander) is married to the actress Sun Moon, and Jun Do helps her and her children escape to America.
The book is set in the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea), which claims to be a socialist state, but has the characteristics of a dictatorship, and promotes Juche, an ideology of national self-reliance. The story gives a glimpse into life in North Korea where the government decides who does what, how and when. I haven't really studied much about North Korea, but this glimpse into that type of a culture was horrifying and terribly saddening.
I have mixed feelings about the book. Like some of the other Pulitzer winners I've completed, I'm glad I read it but would not read it again and would only recommend it to serious readers. There is a good bit of torture and inhumane killing throughout the book, which was disturbing but was not written in a manner that made it completely gory or too bawdy (if that makes sense).
The plot line was interesting and I found some incidents extremely humorous. For example, before Jun Do goes to prison, he is part of a delegation that goes to America and is met and entertained by a Texas senator. They are not successful in their attempt to have a warhead (that the US confiscated) returned, so the delegation creates a story to tell upon their return to North Korea. They report that the American made them eat with their hands outside (at a Texas BBQ), forced them to sleep with their dogs (the family pet), made them do grounds-keeping and cut weeds (with a chainsaw) and shoot guns (target practice). The delegation claimed that all these things were done to humiliate the Koreans, and this incident figures strongly in Jun Do's plan to help Sun Moon and her children escape later in the book.
Have you read this book? Please share your thoughts in the comments.