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A Reader of Fictions: Childhood (1) - Yann Tiersen

A Reader of Fictions

Book Reviews for Just About Every Kind of Book

Friday, March 23, 2012

Childhood (1) - Yann Tiersen

Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Journey from North Korea to Freedom in the West

Author: Blaine Harden
Pages: 191
Review Copy Acquired from: Viking

Description from Goodreads:
North Korea is isolated and hungry, bankrupt and belligerent. It is also armed with nuclear weapons. Between 150,000 and 200,000 people are being held in its political prison camps, which have existed twice as long as Stalin's Soviet gulags and twelve times as long as the Nazi concentration camps. Very few born and raised in these camps have escaped. But Shin Donghyuk did.

In
Escape from Camp 14, acclaimed journalist Blaine Harden tells the story of Shin Dong-hyuk and through the lens of Shin's life unlocks the secrets of the world's most repressive totalitarian state. Shin knew nothing of civilized existence-he saw his mother as a competitor for food, guards raised him to be a snitch, and he witnessed the execution of his own family. Through Harden's harrowing narrative of Shin's life and remarkable escape, he offers an unequaled inside account of one of the world's darkest nations and a riveting tale of endurance, courage, and survival.

First Sentence: "His first memory is an execution."

Review:
I wrote my Independent Study senior year of college about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's writings. One of the things I read was his Gulag Archipelago. For some reason, which I really don't want to consider too much (this may have something to do with my love for dystopias too), I have always been fascinated with books about the concentration camps and the gulag system. When I read in the blurbs sent to me by Penguin that the North Korean camps make those pale in comparison, I knew that I had to read this book.

The scale of the camps is simply staggering. Shin attended a rudimentary school with approximately 1,000 other children. This is mindboggling, considering that only the children of camp marriages were allowed any form of education within the camp. Marriages were used as a reward for the hardest workers, so just imagine how many people might be in this one camp, of which there were many more. And of all of those people, Shin is still the only person known to have escaped and survived.

Perhaps even more startling are all of the other facts about North Korea. It seems as though, horrendous as life can be in the camps, it's not actually that much better on the outside. In some instances, there may be more reliable food in the camps.

Harden did a great job with this. He includes a lot of details about North Korea in general, whatever he's managed to learn, that add context to Shin's story. Personally, I knew practically nothing about North Korea beforehand; apparently, there's only so much to know, because the North Koreans really don't want anyone else to know anything. Plus, he emphasizes the limits of our knowledge of North Korea and of Shin. There is often no way to corroborate Shin's tale, because he is the only one known to have escaped from a no-release camp.

[Random comment, but I really will never understand why photo inserts in history books/biographys are always put in the middle of a chapter. Hundreds of pages, between any of which the photos could go, but they always put them in the middle of a chapter (actually, usually a sentence), necessitating a back and forth shuffle through the pages. Why not just put them after a chapter and let me flip through the book the way I usually do?]

Although Escape from Camp 14 is a brief book, it packs a punch. For those with an interest in history or contemporary politics, this is a must-read.

Favorite Quote: "'I am evolving from being an animal,' he said. 'But it is going very, very slowly. Sometime I try to cry and laugh like other people, just to see if it feels like anything. Yet tears don't come. Laughter doesn't come.'"

Rating: 4.5/5

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4 Comments:

Anonymous Christina Kit. said...

I think this should be required reading in school. To hear about this from the point of view of someone who lived it really highlights the political and emotional and humanitarian themes.

March 24, 2012 at 12:47 PM  
Blogger Christina said...

It's also a great way to learn about a country that we're filled with so much blind hatred towards, without really understanding what life is like for the people that live there.

March 24, 2012 at 1:08 PM  
Blogger Amy S. said...

I too like to read books like this, and I also love dystopian novels. They are fascinating, and yet make me so much more appreciative of the freedoms I enjoy in the US. I read Man is Wolf to Man last year, along with Night by Elie Wiesel. Those books are tough to read, but I feel like it is important that we know history from these first-hand accounts. I'm going to look for this book at my local library. Thanks for reviewing it.

March 25, 2012 at 9:42 PM  
Blogger Christina said...

Like the Mockingjay pin in your pic!

Yeah, I thought about making a label called 'life is a dystopia' for this.

March 25, 2012 at 9:44 PM  

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