Book Review

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.


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 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.  


“Do You (Still) Love Him?”

 Love and marriage go together in our culture like salt and pepper or shampoo and conditioner. So what happens when the love disappears? Often that means the couple lets the marriage go. But does that make good sense?

If you ran out of conditioner, would you refuse to shampoo your hair? If you ran out of salt, wouldn’t you still add pepper to make your soup taste better?

rosemary garlic pork chops or burgers?

It might take ten years for the loving feeling to change. Or two. Suddenly (or gradually) the wife sees only his shortcomings. Or he finds himself focusing on how she’s changed in ways he didn’t imagine. Oh, no, she not only is beginning to look like her mother but now she acts like her, too.

She realizes they don’t have much in common other than their house and children. For entertainment, he likes to watch or play sports, and she reads or goes to the movies. Even his preference for plain meat and potatoes opposes her desire to cook gourmet meals. Opposites.

me or us?

Without the softening of love, one spouse simply irritates the other.

“Love covers a multitude of sins” is true in marriage. Love filters our spouses’ many imperfections.

Can a marriage survive if the love is gone? Can a couple get the love back so they can be happy in their marriage and as individuals?

fighting and starving equals love?

In the play Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye asks his wife of many years, “Golde, do you love me?” Golde sings back, “Do I what?” She refuses to answer him, replying he’s stressed out with all the turmoil in their family and town.

Tevye asks her again. Golde reminds him she’s washed his clothes, cooked his meals, helped in the family business, and given him children for all the years they’ve been together. She doesn’t think it’s necessary to talk about something like love in that light.

He asks again. She replies, “I’m your wife.” Then she thinks aloud about how they lived, fought, starved, and made love together, ending with “if that’s not love, what is?”

feel or act?

Although Fiddler on the Roof was set in the early 1900s and our ideas about love and marriage have changed, their values are still relevant today.

Tevye talks about love as a feeling; Golde refers to love as action. They know marriage is a mixture of good feelings and the right actions.

Because love is both.

Sometimes we act loving even when we don’t feel like it only because we chose the other person. So we do the right thing regardless of what we really want to do.

surf’s up!

Feelings are like the tide. High tide and low tide, but as long as the moon (our action) is in the sky, low tide gives way to high again. So we can ride the emotions when they are strong, and hasten them back when they are low.

Because even though they are just feelings, like Tevye and Golde tell us “it doesn’t change a thing, but after twenty-five years, it’s nice to know.”


Hometown Boy

We all have needs. Sick kids, threatened paychecks, troubled marriages, broken hot water tanks.

My sister loaned me her Jesus Christ Superstar DVD. I’d forgotten how powerful the visualization of the gospel story can be. When I read the New Testament accounts, I know all the details. I lack fresh eyes to see.

An early scene in the movie depicts many people who needed Jesus clamoring around Him. These people understood He was the Savior. They wanted, needed, demanded His attention. Jesus wasn’t someone they’d known about their whole lives. Except in His hometown.

The crowds around Jesus didn’t have the disadvantage of growing up in Sunday School with the Bible stories becoming as commonplace as family escapades or school history lessons. (There are advantages, this I know.) They didn’t have the internet either where His beatitude speech might go viral, spinning Him into celebrity status.

In the movie, Jesus walked among the people because He loved them. To save them. His power provided what they needed, not as a Santa Claus figure or Sugar Daddy, for their real needs – not toys and candy. Real physical problems like blindness, deafness, lameness, and diseases like leprosy, bleeding that wouldn’t stop crushed them.

But, at least for a time, they knew He could change their lives.

What about today? He’s still among us, still waiting for us to ask. But some of us have become immune to the power of Jesus. Resistant to His love. Impervious to His willingness to help us with our needs.

We’ve always known about Him, but we don’t see Jesus as He is because we fail to look. We are blind. We are deaf. And we are bleeding to death.

If we can only imagine we just heard about Jesus like the people in Jesus Christ Superstar or in real time Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. With new sight, we could see Him, truly man and truly God, in our midst.

Here and now, Jesus waits for us to ask even when it’s just to ask for more faith to believe. That’s fine (and Biblical), too.

Forget that – in a sense – we’ve grown up with Jesus.

Reach out. Touch His robe.