Study Guide

The Orphan Master's Son Truth

By Adam Johnson

Truth

Part 1, Pages 7-20

There was a Japanese man. He took his dog for a walk. And then he was nowhere. For the people who knew him, he'd forever be nowhere. (18)

Jun Do is obsessed with following the narrative line to its very end. He's tormented by the fact that he doesn't know what happened to his mother—he doesn't even know her name—and he's in awe of the American system, which allows names and phone numbers to be published. While he can be morally flexible in many instances, he's haunted by the fact he disrupted so many life stories in his kidnapping career. It's no wonder that one of his first actions in the U.S. is to tell Wanda the names of all those he helped kidnap. Jun Do feels that the families need to know how the story really ended.

Part 1, Pages 34-62

Real stories like this, human ones, could get you sent to prison, and it didn't matter what they were about. It didn't matter if the story was about an old woman or a squid attack—if it diverted attention from the Dear Leader, it was dangerous. (51)

The Captain has just told Jun Do and crew about the squid attack on the Russian penal vessel that claimed the life of one of his young mates. It's a brief but emotional tale, and Jun Do is excited to hear a true, real story for a change. The story expands his world in terrifying ways and gives him an emotional education. That's also why this kind of sharing is dangerous to the state: real experience trumps propaganda.

Part 1, Pages 75-90

There was that wild light in his eyes. "And then one of us," he said, "without regard for his own safety, jumped into the shark-filled sea to save the Second Mate. This crewman suffered ferocious bite wounds, but he didn't care because he only thought about saving the Second Mate, a hero of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. But it was too late—half eaten, the Second Mate slipped below the waves." (82)

Reality is never a concern when dealing with the Dear Leader. You might even say that entertainment is of higher importance. The Second Mate's gruesome death by ravaging sharks certainly fits that bill, and it fulfills one major tenet of the state: the story is more important than the individual. If the story works with the Dear Leader's agenda, it's a go.

Part 1, Pages 91-112

The dream of him floating away, the bright lights, his radio. It's as real as the sharks rising out of the dark water, as the teeth in my arm. I know one is real and one's a dream, but I keep forgetting which is which, they're both so true. I can't tell anymore. I don't know which one. (112)

After Jun Do suffers torture at the hands of the creepy older official, it's no wonder that he's got serious reality issues. During his beating, he retreats so far into his mind that he finds a place where the story they'd concocted about the Second Mate's gruesome death is absolutely true. It's a deeply affecting experience, and he finds that he simply can't stop telling himself stories. The Second Mate's wife doesn't really care about the truth: she wants the better story. She wants the gentle version to make her transition to a new husband easier.

Part 1, Pages 124-143

Where was the arm of the Captain of the Kwan Li? Jun Do suddenly wondered. In whose hands were his old dictionaries right now, and what person shaved this morning with the Captain's brush? In what tunnel was his team now running, and what had become of the old woman they'd kidnapped, the one who said she would go willingly if she could take his picture? (125)

Jun Do can't bear not to know how stories end. There's something so essential and basic for him in knowing the truth of individuals' histories—perhaps because he lives in a society where something like the simple truth is not so easy to know. This lack of accessibility to basic facts hits him just at the moment he's flying over the Pacific Ocean, when he realizes that world is a whole lot bigger than he ever imagined.

Part 2, Pages 194-208

Sarge looked up at me for the first time. "Why doesn't Duc Dan ever write? All these years, not one of them has ever dropped a line to their old Pubyok unit." (205)

The Interrogator, Sarge, and the rest of the crew at Division 42 are having a serious reality check at this moment. Their belief that good and faithful work in service of the state will be rewarded by a comfortable beach retirement has been dashed by the narrative of Commander Ga. Learning of their colleague's internment at Prison 33 shakes them momentarily and plants the seed in their minds that things may not be as they seem. Still, the truth eventually becomes more than Sarge and Q-Kee are willing to accept, so they simply discard it.

Part 2, Pages 293-305

"I've never been to Wonsan," he said. "But I've sailed past it many times. There are no umbrellas in the sand. There are no lounge chairs or fishing poles. There are no old people. Wherever the grandparents of North Korea go, it's not Wonsan." (301)

Jun Do has become the bucket of cold water on everyone's delusions at this point in the narrative. He feels the need to strip Sun Moon of the belief that her mom is simply too busy having fun on the beach in Wonsan to write. And guess what? Sun Moon doesn't thank him for it. It turns out that sometimes, the truth just makes a miserable situation worse. But Jun Do knows that knowing the glaring truth is necessary for change.

Sun Moon took a hard look at them. "My word," she said. "They're starving. There's nothing to them." The girl turned to her father. "We're not starving, are we, Papa?" "Of course not," the father said. (300)

Sun Moon is facing a reality she'd hoped to leave behind: people really are starving to death right outside her door. But if she's finally willing to accept that Pyongyang has problems, the poor people of Pyongyang are not. It's like those old Warner Brothers cartoons where Wile E. Coyote can run on air just fine—until he looks down. For these people, to open their eyes and see the severity of their situation would be to give in to despair.

Part 2, Pages 417-438

It was suddenly so clear, everything. There was no such thing as abandonment, there were only people in impossible positions, people who had a best hope, or maybe only a sole hope. When the graver danger awaited, it wasn't abandoning, it was saving. (429)

Perhaps Jun Do is simply justifying his actions (he's about to send Sun Moon off the U.S. without him), but we think he's having a true epiphany. And this epiphany isn't just applicable to his own actions: it has a lot to do with his own life story, the mother and father that he never had the chance to know. It's a poignant way to end the narrative line of the work, especially since truth has been so elusive for Jun Do this whole time.