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The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother—a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang—and an influential father who runs a work camp for orphans. Superiors in the state soon recognize the boy’s loyalty and keen instincts. Considering himself “a humble citizen of the greatest nation in the world,” Jun Do rises in the ranks. He becomes a professional kidnapper who must navigate the shifting rules, arbitrary violence, and baffling demands of his Korean overlords in order to stay alive. Driven to the absolute limit of what any human being could endure, he boldly takes on the treacherous role of rival to Kim Jong Il in an attempt to save the woman he loves, Sun Moon, a legendary actress “so pure, she didn’t know what starving people looked like.”  In this epic, critically acclaimed tour de force, Adam Johnson provides a riveting portrait of a world rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love.  From

The information below may contain spoilers. Page numbers are from the hardcover edition.

Book Club Party Ideas for The Orphan Master’s Son


A convoy of North Koreans go to Texas where “a table had been set up with a barrel cooler of lemonade, and three gift baskets, each wrapped in cellophane.  The baskets contained a cowboy hat, a pint of bourbon, a carton of American Spirit cigarettes, some beef jerky, a water bottle, sunscreen, a red kerchief, and a pair of calfskin gloves” (page 132).

Here are some ideas for Texas/American tabletop decorations.   I used a striped tablecloth with a piece of blue fabric to resemble a flag.

american flag tablecloth, texas plates

Other decoration ideas can include what the Koreans used when attempting to recreate Texas:  black cowboy boots, a Japanese chuck wagon, fishing poles, scythes and a bamboo cage with poisonous snakes.

Book Club Activities

A screening of Casablanca, which is referenced several times throughout the novel, would be a fun activity to do during your book club.


The first song Sun Moon sings for pleasure is “The Yellow Rose of Texas” (page 395).

Book Club Menu for The Orphan Master’s Son

“The Americans ruin everything with cheese.  The make it out of animal milk.  Americans put it on everything – on their eggs at breakfast, on their noodles, they melt it on ground meat.  They say Americans smell like butter, but no, it is cheese” (page 282).

To celebrate the American way of life, serve this Macaroni and Cheese.

Macaroni and Cheese

“Wanda juiced limes with a wooden baton as Pilar upturned bottles of liquor into the blender” (page 147).  This sounds like margaritas to me…yes!!  This Margarita Recipe is one of my favorites and does not require a blender.

cointreau, tequila, limes

“She named everything on the lazy Susan at the center of the table, including flautas, mole, rellenos, and fix it yourself tacos: there was a tortilla warmer and dishes of cilantro, onion, diced tomatoes, shredded cabbage, Mexican cream, black beans and tiger” (page 148).  I used fajita meat for the “tiger.”

fajitas, tortillas, onions, tomatoes, cabbage, black beans

More recipes ideas from The Orphan Master’s Son

  • “On the machining floors, for bowls of cold chap chai, they would shovel the coils of oily metal that sprayed from the industrial lathes.  The railyard fed them best though, spicy yukejang” (page 8).
  • “In the back, behind stacks of square blood bags, Officer So fished out a half-full bottle of shoju” (page 18).
  • “I don’t think old Gil’s used to a diet of millet cakes and sorghum soup” (page 19).
  • “They’d heard the cold-water shrimp were in big demand in Pyongyang.  It was a new fashion there to eat them while they were still alive” (page 49).
  • “Look here, son,” the Captain said, and from the bag produced a slab of tuna and two Ryoksong beers.  “It’s time to get your health back” (page 95).
  • “There were served beef ribs, corn grilled in the husk, marinated tomatoes, and a scoop of macaroni.” “The meat was both sweet and spicy, the tomatoes tangy, but the corn and noodles were made most foul by butter and cheese” (page 136).  For dessert they were served pecan pie.
  • “I breathed deeply, but the air smelled no different – grilled onion stalks, boiling peanuts, millet in the pan, dinner in Pyongyang” (page 331)
  • Mentioned throughout the novel were peaches, although your guests will likely be reluctant to try them.

Book Club Resources for The Orphan Master’s Son

Ratings at the time this post was published

Goodreads: 3.95 stars (9686 ratings)
Amazon: 4.1 stars (465 ratings)
LibraryThing: 4.09 stars (89 ratings)

Purchase The Orphan Master’s Son at your favorite bookseller

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Discussion Questions for The Orphan Master’s Son from

  1. How much did you know about North Korea before reading The Orphan Master’s Son? How has it changed your perspective on life there?
  2. The Orphan Master’s Son has been characterized as a thriller, a love story, and a political dystopia. How would you classify the novel in terms of genre? How do you think each of these genres manifests itself in the book?
  3. Speaking of genre, Adam Johnson once categorized the novel as a “trauma narrative.” How do you interpret that term? Do you think it suitably describes the novel, and if so, in what ways?
  4. How did you feel about the inclusion of Kim Jong Il as a central character in the book? How would you say Johnson depicts him? Were you surprised by his portrayal?
  5. Discuss the differences between the first part of the novel, “The Biography of Jun Do,” and the second, “The Confessions of Commander Ga.”
  6. How do the propaganda chapters, written as if spoken from a loudspeaker, play into your reading of the novel?
  7. What do you feel the first-person narrative contributed to the story? Did you feel more or less removed from a world so closely guarded?
  8. Reviewers have drawn comparisons between The Orphan Master’s Son and classic dystopian novels such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. Are these apt comparisons? Does Johnson’s fiction, which is based on fact, have a different impact from that of novels which center on invented worlds?
  9. At one point, Dr. Song says to Jun Do, “Where we are from, stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.” What does this mean in the context of the novel?
  10. In one of the most poignant and powerful moments in the book, one of the interrogators remembers the way in which his father explained life in North Korea: “Even if we walked this path side by side, he said, we must act alone on the outside, while on the inside, we would be holding hands.” What does the quote imply about the reality of living in such a repressive society? How does it speak to humanness in the face of inhumanity?
  11. Discuss the significance of “Jun Do” as a homonym for “John Doe,” the Western name for the unnamed and the everyman.
  12. Discuss Jun Do’s physical and emotional journey, and his transformation from the beginning of the novel to the end.
  13. One critic described The Orphan Master’s Son as “darkly comedic,” and another as, at times, “ridiculously funny.” How do you feel about the use of comedy in conjunction with the brutality of the novel?
  14. How should the rest of the world respond to the violence and tyranny of present-day North Korea? Do we have a moral obligation to intervene? What can we do to help the people of North Korea without supporting its government?

The Author

  Adam Johnson teaches creative writing at Stanford University. His fiction has appeared in Esquire, The Paris Review, Harper’s, Tin House, Granta, and Playboy, as well as The Best American Short Stories. His other works include Emporium, a short-story collection, and the novel Parasites Like Us. He lives in San Francisco.

Other Works by Adam Johnson

Favorite Quotes from The Orphan Master’s Son

“When the dogs returned, the Senator gave them treats from his pocket, and Jun Do understood that in communism, you’d threaten a dog into compliance, while in capitalism, obedience is obtained through bribes” (page 136).

Do you have any other ideas or recipes for a book club party for The Orphan Master’s Son? We would love to have you share them with us! You can leave a comment below and upload pictures as well.

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