Study Guide

The Orphan Master's Son Truth

By Adam Johnson

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Ah, truthiness. You can thank Stephen Colbert for coming up with this truly ridiculous term to describe something that seems like truth but really isn't. Truthiness is "...the truth we want to exist" (source). It's based on wishful thinking. Hey, if it sounds good and feels about right, then it must be true… right?

In The Orphan Master's Son, North Korea take "truthiness" to a whole new level. We're talking about people who are all about embracing a reality completely removed from any kind of objective truth. We see this obstinacy at highly emotional moments, when the truth has been revealed and the characters teeter on the edge of acceptance—like when the Pubyok figure out that Duc Dan's miserable fate must be true and they're all probably in line for the same, but they still just can't let go of the beautiful lie.

Well, no wonder. The lies are totally "truthy" in the sense that they're actually sane and play on normal expectations: old people retire to pleasant Wonsan; torture victims get new lives once they've paid the price; heroes live on, honored and valued by the state. What's not to believe?

Jun Do's experiences lead him past the glossy lies and allow him to embrace the horror of his reality. Having the truth means having access to indisputable knowledge, something that is top priority for an orphan who doesn't even know the story of his own parents. This knowledge gives Jun Do the power to change his story—and the stories of others—because he's able to scheme with his eyes wide open.

Questions About Truth

  1. What happens when Jun Do realizes that his actions involving the orphans were not simply the product of "having no other choice"?
  2. How does the important role of storytelling in this book complicate the truth? Does it ever make the truth more visible?
  3. In what ways is the truth more destructive than lies in this book? In what ways is the truth absolutely necessary?
  4. Why does Comrade Buc get angry when Jun Do/Imposter Ga tells him of his plan to defect with Sun Moon?

Chew on This

Though Jun Do wants to make others face truths, his epiphany that "there's no such thing as abandonment" is just a way of deceiving himself.

Although storytelling is a way of avoiding reality in this book, there's also a sense that truth can be found in both story and song.

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