Study Guide

The Orphan Master's Son Family

By Adam Johnson

Family

Part 1, Pages 7-20

Since beautiful women in the provinces get shipped to Pyongyang, that's certainly what had happened to his mother. The real proof of this was the Orphan Master himself. At night, he'd drink, and from the barracks, the orphans would hear him weeping and lamenting, striking half-heard bargains with the woman in the photograph. (7)

In his desperate quest to avoid orphanhood, Jun Do pieces together a likely story about his family. This results, for him, in a twisted version of what familial love is: true suffering, loss and tragedy. He imagines that the cruelty shown to him by the Orphan Master proves the fact that the Orphan Master is actually his dad, because only a man truly suffering from the loss of his only love could hate a child so much. That's how Jun Do sees it, anyway.

Part 1, Pages 75-90

"It's because no one ever taught you about family and sacrifice and doing whatever it takes to protect your own." The Captain's eyes were open and calm and so close to Jun Do's that it felt they were communicating in some pure, wordless way. The hand on the back of his neck was solid, and Jun Do found himself nodding. (83)

While the Captain is surely manipulating Jun Do to save his own skin, there is something appealing in his explanation here that Jun Do does not want to resist. This explanation plays well with Jun Do's understanding that family members exist to sacrifice themselves for each other—and that the willingness to suffer is an innate part of belonging to a group.

Part 1, Pages 144-155

Was this what family was, how it grew—straight as the children's teeth? Sure there was an arm in a sling and over time the grandparents disappeared from the photos. The occasions changed, as did the dogs. But this was a family, from start to finish, without wars or famines or political prisons, without a stranger coming to town to drown your daughter. (147)

Jun Do's first encounter with American-style families challenges his understanding of what families look like and how they operate. The pictures in the Senator's house tell Jun Do that children are not meant to suffer and starve—and that the only people who disappear over time are members of the older generation. In this reality, bad stuff happening is rare and a real tragedy—not the stuff of daily life.

Part 2, Pages 272-292

There is a talk that every father has with his son in which he brings the child to understand that there are ways we must act, things we must say, but inside, we are still us, we are family... [My father] told me that there was a path set out for us. On it we had to do everything the signs commanded and heed all the announcements along the way. 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. (275)

Interrogator 6 reflects back on "the talk" given to him by his own father—but it's not the kind of talk you would expect. Living in a communist dictatorship surely reshapes the way families interact with one another, and this guy's father wants him to know that saving your skin by denouncing a family member doesn't mean you don't love each other. It's a horrifying reality—and a traumatic memory for the Interrogator—but one that is blindly accepted by many of the characters.

Part 2, Pages 293-305

The bust and the man faced one another but bore no resemblance. He hadn't known what he'd feel when he finally faced this martyr, but Ga's only thought was, I'm not you. I'm my own man. (294)

Jun Do (acting as Commander Ga here) faces his namesake martyr. His encounter with Pak Jun Do's memorial bust in the cemetery is as close as he will ever come to meeting an ancestor, and yet he understands that there is very little affinity between himself and the man for whom he is named.

"My poor little orphan," she said. "An orphan's father is twice as important. Orphans are the only ones who get to choose their fathers, and they love them twice as much." (298)

Mongnan is the first character to treat Jun Do in a really motherly way, and this has the effect of disarming Jun Do: it's the first time he quits denying the fact that he is an orphan. Mongnan points out that the Captain, whom Jun Do has just killed with a stone to spare him further pain, was a father figure to Jun Do. She is right about this: the Captain may have used Jun Do, but he also took a genuine interest in the young man's development. The horrendous Orphan Master aside, the Captain is the best version of a dad that Jun Do had.

Part 2, Pages 366-387

... and Ga watched how the candlelight played on their faces, how Sun Moon's eyes lowered with delight, how the children relished their mother's attention, and how they kept trying to outdo one another for it, and how, as a family, they turned that melon to rind, saving the seeds in a small wooden bowl... (369)

This is a true Kodak moment for Jun Do/Imposter Ga and Sun Moon, a glimpse into what family might be like in less hostile circumstances. But it is a fleeting glimpse, since some serious stuff is about to go down and ruin their chances for a lifetime of familial happiness. This moment later makes Jun Do realize that if things had been different—had he and Sun Moon not been born into a dictatorial state—he might have enjoyed such happiness every day of his life.

Part 2, Pages 407-417

The boy's voice was clear and trusting, the girl's was graveled with growing awareness. Combined with Sun Moon's longing, a harmony arose that was nourishing to Ga. No other family in the world could create such a sound and here he was, in the glow of it. (417)

Jun Do/Imposter Ga has found his family at last—though it is ironic that he had to kill to get to it. His sense that this family is unique is a sure sign that he's gone head over heels for them and that he will be willing to do anything to preserve them. Note that Ga/Jun Do is basking in the "glow" of his adopted family's harmony—a term that is also used to describe one of Jun Do's best pain management techniques. This family moment is the type of thing that will reinforce that "pain reserve" that will help him endure his fate.

He did catch the Okinawan families making appeals to fathers listening on their ships, but it was hard to feel too bad for kids who had mothers and siblings. Plus the 'adopt us' good cheer was enough to make a person sick. When the Russian families broadcast nothing but good cheer for their inmate fathers, it was to give the men strength. But trying to plead a parent into returning? Who would fall for that? (54)

Here we get a deeper understanding of Jun Do's concept of family. As he scans the radio waves while on the Junma, he catches glimpses of how other families work—and it perplexes him. Children, he thinks, ought to be of service to their families, and not the other way around. There's a sense that weakness—even the natural frailty of infancy and childhood—is something to be hated and shunned.

... I realized that I wasn't composing for posterity or the Dear Leader or for the good of the citizenry. No, the people who needed to hear my story were the people I loved, the people right in front of me who'd started to think of me as a stranger, who were scared of me because they no longer knew the real me. (405)

The Interrogator is having a serious identity crisis, partly because he can't find a way to tell his life's story, and partly because he feels that his parents know him only as an agent of the state and not as a person. No matter how hard he tries to break through his parents' official patter, the Interrogator can't have a "real" conversation—a true heart-to-heart—with his mom and dad. It's terrifying for him to think that his life story will not matter to anyone else and will die with him.