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'The Orphan Master's Son' by Adam Johnson - Book Club Discussion Questions

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The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

Random House
The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson is a sprawling novel about one man's life in North Korea. Use these book club discussion questions and passages from the novel to explore Johnson's themes more deeply.

Spoiler Warning: These book club discussion questions contain important details about The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson. Finish the book before reading on.

  1. Is The Orphan Master's Son realistic? Which was more surreal to you -- the extreme torture and suffering or the fortuitous path Jun Do's life took? How do these two things play off each other in the novel?
  2. Jun Do's life story has many sub-stories within it. Which were your favorites?
  3. During a conversation with the Second Mate on the boat, Jun Do thinks,"It did sound a little paranoid when the Second Mate said it out loud. But the truth was the idea of conspiracy appealed to Jun Do. That people were in communication, that things had a design, that there was intention, significance, and purpose in what people did -- he needed to believe this" (47).

    Is this sense of purpose and design lost by the end of the novel or heightened? Are you able to see purpose and design in the world despite suffering and tragedy? Why or why not?

  4. Toward the end of Part I, Jun Do has this conversation with the Second Mate's wife:
    "'Don't underestimate yourself -- you'll survive.'
    'Survive like you?' she asked.
    He didn't say anything.
    'You know what you are?' she said.'You're a survivor who has nothing to live for.'
    'What would you rather, that I die for something I cared about?'" (115).

    By the end of the book, you could say Jun Do becomes someone who dies for something he cares about rather than surviving with nothing to live for. What causes this transformation? Does it somehow make his death more redemptive or different than the fate of the Interrogator?

  5. What affect do the chapters that are written as if they are loudspeaker narratives have on the novel?
  6. After the "shark incident," while Jun Do is being tortured, the novel says: "When Jun Do had cordoned off the pounding in his eyes, and the hot blood in his nose, when he'd stopped the split in his lips and the sting in his ears from coming inside, when he'd blocked his arms and torso and shoulders from feeling...suddenly the story was true, it had been beaten into him, and he began crying" (88). This reminded me of people falling in love with Big Brother in Orwell's 1984. The novel goes on,"Kimsan never talked about what to do after the pain...A person could learn to turn an arm off, so you didn't feel anything that happened to it, but how did you turn it back on?" (89)

    How does a person hold onto truth in the midst of pain? Are survival and retaining a sense of one's humanity ever at odds?

  7. The second half of the novel introduces the character of the Interrogator. What does his first person narrative add to the story?
  8. At one point,the Interrogator remembers a conversation with his father as a boy: "I put my small hand in his, and then his mouth became sharp with hate. He shouted, 'I denounce this citizen as an imperialist puppet who should be remanded to stand trial for crimes against the state.' His face was red, venomous...I was terrified, on the verge of crying. My father said, 'See, my mouth said that, but my hand, my hand was holding yours. If your mother ever must say something like that to me, in order to protect the two of you, know that inside, she and I are holding hands. And if someday you must say something like that to me, I will know it's not really you" (276).

    While the interrogator's father meant this as a lesson in survival, the interrogator seems to have taken this philosophy to an extreme, with his internal view of himself completely removed from the brutal acts of violence he inflicts on people.

    Do you think it is possible for someone to remain "good" while saying or doing something bad? Does the need to survive excuse a person for turning on those they love? Is there a difference between the Interrogator and Jun Do throwing a stone at the Captain or Comrade Buc feeding his family the peaches?

  9. Did The Orphan Master's Son make you think any differently about North Korea? America?
  10. Rate The Orphan Master's Son on a scale of 1 to 5.
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