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The Orphan Master's Son
The Orphan Master’s Son

The Orphan Master’s Son, set in North Korea, by Adam Johnson is a literary tale about identity and story. The setting, plot, and characters captivate on their own level to bring us a story we can relate to.

Identity

Most of the major characters are unnamed or given a pseudonym. The main character never knows his real name and, in the first part of the book, chooses his own from a list of martyrs. He picks Pak Jun Do and goes by Jun Do (John Doe).

Sun Moon is the actress whose picture Jun Do gets tattooed onto his chest so he wouldn’t be mistaken for a spy, but that is not her real name. It is given to her by the dictator Kim Il Sung who discovers her. Her children have names but never tell them because “[n]ames come and go. Names change. . . A name isn’t a person. . . It’s you that matter, not your names.”

In the second part of the book, Pak Jun Do takes on the identity of another man, Commander Ga, whom he may or may not have killed in self defense. He moves from being the one  “steered by others” who is “trying to escape from their paths” to “a man who steps on the gas” when he puts on Commander Ga’s uniform, rides in his car, and moves into the house Ga had shared with the nation’s movie actress, Sun Moon.

Story

Story is the thread that stitches Jun Do’s narrative together. He is told early in the book that it doesn’t matter who you are in North Korea, all that matters is your story.

When Jun Do names the orphans (and himself), his choice is based on the martyr’s stories. With his kidnapper job, he hears a story (opera), and his spy job enables him to listen to the stories on the short-wave radio, his favorite part of his job.

Whenever a situation occurs that could prove dangerous, Jun Do and his fellow workers make up elaborate stories to share with the government agents who question them. The final part of the book is about an interrogator whose job is writing down people’s stories before erasing their memories with a special machine.  

Madeleine L’Engle in her book Walking On Water states “to write a story is an act of Naming.” Jun Do starts out not knowing his real name, and, by the ending, he is back at that same place.

The government, in trying to extract his story from him, is unable to learn his identity. This powerful government which rules the lives of all its citizens is impotent.

 At the end of The Orphan Master’s Son, Jun Do approaches his lack of name as a changed man.

He embraces this reality because he has written his own story of who he is.

Now he is his story. And he is named.  

 

Why Read Fiction?

People say fiction is only make-believe and those who read it want to escape life.

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Nonfiction is reality, they say; fiction isn’t. Why waste time?

It’s true that non-fiction describes life accurately. But fiction births—in a way we can embrace it—truth.

In story, we enter the world of the tale through words. We need to use our imagination to comprehend. We must see, hear, taste, touch, and smell what the characters sense. And when we do, the narrative comes alive.

We become the character. We conquer life. We grow.

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We gain courage as we encounter difficulties, even impossibilities, with the characters. We see the world in a new way and understand things about life we hadn’t before we picked up the book. We learn we are loveable just as we are although we aren’t perfect. We perceive we are not alone. We comprehend our experience is universal.

And, in the end, we will be okay.

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Good storytellers listen to the stories within them and tell its truth. This fiction heals the reader (and the writer). Story is a balm for our wounded lives, a safe place we can go. Again, not to escape the world but to make sense of it.

When a child in a tumultuous home is given the gift of reading and books, he carries a torch to see a bigger and better world. He believes he can conquer the dragons in his own world in his own way.

He wins hope.

When a woman feels isolated in her problems, a story becomes a place she can see she isn’t. Her mind, spurred on creatively by reading, finds solutions she hadn’t thought of before the story.

She gains hope.

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Maybe she even sees God.

Who’s First At Your House?

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A young couple in the pew in front of me caught my attention. The mother held a curly-haired toddler on her hip. She danced with him to the worship music. His legs bounced like he was riding a bucking horse.

I wondered if he was the couple’s firstborn, one they’d waited a long time for, because she seemed entranced with him.

The father looked at the two of them often, but the mother didn’t acknowledge him. I’m sure the dad was proud his wife was a good mother, but I felt sad for him. He couldn’t compete because the mom saw only her son. She smiled and tickled and teased him between songs.

I wondered what her husband thought: I’m so glad she’s a good mother. 

Or I remember when she delighted in me.

She held the toddler on the same side as her husband so the little fellow was between his parents. After about fifteen or so minutes, she passed him off to her husband, but their son wanted his mother after only a few minutes. She rewarded him with a dazzling smile.

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What if she’d put the child on the other hip so she’d be next to her husband? What if she’d made eye contact or whispered to her husband or leaned into his side?

What if when he looked for that connection, he found her smile at him or her hand brushed his face?  

Did she prefer being a mother over a wife? Her actions seemed to say that. Babies and young children naturally charm us so it’s true we don’t need to be told to adore our children. Their chubby cheeks and soft skin compel us. And those smiles that light up their face . . .

But the Bible tells wives to respect their husbands. Admire, esteem, defer to.

God reminds us of this, maybe because once we have children, we can forget. Or get too busy. But if love is proved by action, loving our husbands means showing him he is our first love.

To demonstrate we value him in ways he understands. Like when we consider, prefer, include him.

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There are everyday opportunities to show respect if we look.

But when we fail, we need our husbands to let us know. In the same way, when he forgets to show the love we need, we remind him. Of course, in a nice way. These are not times to worry we are selfish or immature. It’s our responsibility to the marriage to admit what we need from each other.

Husbands (and wives) are vulnerable to a co-worker’s attention when there is a lack of respect or love at home. We’re too busy. We’re exhausted. We take care of the children, the home. We’re in charge of the meals, shopping, the bills. And sometimes both parents work outside the home, too.

It’s not just another item on your to-do list to nurture our marriage. It’s non-negotiable, something we just need to do. Because it matters.

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Who’s first at your house?