The Orphan Master's Son

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The Orphan Master's Son
The Orphan Master's Son (book cover).jpg
Hardcover edition
AuthorAdam Johnson
CountryUnited States
PublisherRandom House
Publication date
Media typePrint, e-book, audiobook
Pages443 pp.

The Orphan Master's Son is a 2012 novel by American author Adam Johnson. It deals with intertwined themes of propaganda, identity and state power in North Korea.[1] The novel was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.[2][3]


  • Pak Jun Do: Protagonist – An orphan and model citizen who struggles through life in North Korea.
  • Commander Ga: A North Korean hero and rival of Kim Jong-il.
  • Sun-moon: Ga's wife and famous North Korean actress.
  • Kim Jong-il (the Dear Leader): North Korean dictator.
  • Interrogator for the North Korean state


Part 1[edit]

The two parts of the book are titled “The Biography of Jun Do,” and “The Confessions of Commander Ga.” Part 1 details Jun Do's upbringing in a state orphanage and his service to the state, including as a kidnapper of Japanese citizens, and as a signal operator stationed on a fishing boat. He travels to America as part of a diplomatic delegation. Part 1 ends with Jun Do being taken to a prison mine because the trip to America was an unsuccessful mission.

Part 2[edit]

Part 2 of the book begins with a chapter introducing the third narrator, an interrogator for the North Korean state, which has taken the national hero “Commander Ga” into custody. The interrogator compiles biographies of prisoners as a by-product of interrogation. He imagines someday his unit will be called "Division of Citizen Biographies." Jun Do had assumed Commander Ga's identity, and became the “replacement husband” of Sun Moon, a famous actress. At first, Sun Moon forces him to live in the dirt cellar under the house, but soon accepts him into the house to live with her and her children. Because of his experience in America, Jun Do is given a new assignment by the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il. Tensions rise between North Korea and America due to the U.S. seizing materials bound for North Korea related to nuclear development, and the retaliatory seizure of an American woman who tried to row a boat around the world. When an American delegation comes to Pyongyang to free her, Jun Do puts a desperate plan into motion.

Structure and style[edit]

Johnson has said that this book began as a short story called The Best North Korean Short Story of 2005.[4] There are three narrators in the book: a third-person account; the propaganda version of Commander Ga and Sun Moon's story, which is projected across the country by loudspeakers; and a first-person account by an interrogator seeking to write a Biography of Commander Ga.

Critical reception[edit]

The novel's reception has been highly favorable. Michiko Kakutani, writing in The New York Times, has called it "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."[5] Writing in the Wall Street Journal,[6] Sam Sacks said “stylistic panache, technical daring, moral weight and an uncanny sense of the current moment—combine in Adam Johnson's 'The Orphan Master's Son', the single best work of fiction published in 2012.” M. Francis Wolff, in her review for The New Inquiry,[7] called the book "one of those rare works of high ambition that follow through on all of its promises... it examines both the Orwellian horrors of life in the DPRK and the voyeurism of Western media." David Ignatius’ review in the Washington Post called the novel “an audacious act of imagination.”[8] In the New York Times, Christopher R. Beha called it “an ingeniously plotted adventure that feels much shorter than its roughly 450 pages and offers the reader a tremendous amount of fun,” but complained that the “[propaganda] interludes are fine exercises in dark wit, but in the context of a novel that seeks to portray a country’s suffering, they’re unconvincing.”[9] On 15 April 2013, the novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.[2]

Awards and honors[edit]


  1. ^ Hauser, CJ (September 10, 2010). "INTERVIEW: Adam Johnson". The Outlet. Archived from the original on May 24, 2014. Retrieved April 27, 2013.
  2. ^ a b Carolyn Kellogg (April 15, 2013). "Adam Johnson wins the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for 2013". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 21, 2013.
  3. ^
  4. ^ Washington Post (January 9, 2012). "The Orphan Master's Son an audacious, believable tale". Retrieved June 20, 2012.
  5. ^ "The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson : Review". The New York Times. Retrieved March 6, 2015.
  6. ^ Wall Street Journal (January 11, 2012). "A Parallel World Above the 38th". Retrieved June 20, 2012.
  7. ^ Wolff, M. Francis. "Army of Eun". New Inquiry. The New Inquiry. Retrieved April 15, 2013.
  8. ^ Washington Post review
  9. ^ New York Times (January 13, 2012). "Kim Jong-il's Romantic Rival". Retrieved June 20, 2012.
  10. ^ John Williams (January 14, 2012). "National Book Critics Circle Names *2012 Award Finalists". New York Times. Retrieved January 15, 2013.
  11. ^ Meredith Moss (September 24, 2013). "2013 Dayton Literary Peace Prize winners announced". Dayton Daily News. Retrieved September 26, 2013.
  12. ^ "California Book Award Past Winners".

External links[edit]