Orphan Master's Son (Johnson) - Discussion Questions

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1. What makes Pak Jun Do believe he is the son of the Orphan Master? Is he right? How does a child become an orphan, what are they used for, and why are they despised by North Koreans?

2. What is the thematic significance of the Americans mistaking Jun Do as "John Doe"? What does the appellation "John Doe" mean to Americans? What does it suggest about Jun Do himself, as well as the millions of people who live under the North Korean flag?

3. How would you describe life in North Korea for its citizens? What do you find most horrifying about the way in which Adam Johnson portrays that society? How would you—or any of us—fare under such circumstances?

4. What do you make of the various characters who express their horror at life in America and the American's lack of protection by their own government? Why would North Koreans prefer their life to that of Americans?

5. Talk about the treatment of women in North Korea? What actually happens to beautiful young women who are born in the provinces? What is their fate?

6. Jun Do tells the Second Mate's wife that he can no longer distinguish dream from reality: that the Second Mate was devoured by sharks or that he floated away on a raft with only a radio. The wife tells Jun Do to "choose the beautiful story." Then the following exchange takes place:

'But isn't it more scary to be utterly alone upon the waters, completely cut off from everyone, no friends, no family, no direction, nothing but a radio for solace?'

She touched the side of his face. 'That's your story,' she said. 'You're trying to tell me your story, aren't you?... Oh, you poor boy. You poor little boy.... Come in off the water, things can be different. You don't need a radio. I'm right here. You don't have to choose to be alone.'

a) What does she mean? Is Jun Do telling his own story?
b) Why is Jun Do more frightened to be "alone upon the waters" than to be eaten by sharks?
c) Why does Jun Do miss the Junma, the captain, and his radio?
d) What is the symbolic significance of his radio work...and the fact he does it at night?

7. Even though Kim Jong Il is offstage more than not, he is ever present in the lives of the characters. How does Adam Johnson portray Dear Leader in this novel? Does Johnson lend him psychological depth? Or is he a cartoonish, one-dimensional villain?

8. The book is disjointed as it shifts perspective, time periods, and even genres. Did you find the structure confusing? The author has described his book as a "trauma narrative." What does he mean?

9. In his days on tunnel patrol, Jun Do thinks to himself...

Never use your imagination. The darkness inside your head is something your imagination fills with stories that have nothing to do with the real darkness around you.

a) How might this statement be considered a thematic concern throughout the novel?
b) What does it mean for individuals who are told not to use their imagination?
c) What does it mean for art or music or literature?

10. The author's wit is on display in The Orphan Master's Son. Were you disturbed by Johnson's humor to convey the grim horrors of life under the DPRK? Or does the author's use comedy, even farce, resemble Charles Dickens in it's ability to highlight a society's malignant insanity?

11. The book converts the second-half of the novel into an adventurous, almost lunatic, quest. Does the second half seem far-fetched to you? Does it matter?

12. How would you describe this book: thriller, coming-of-age, romance, satire?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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