This was a fascinating and heartbreaking memoir about a young boy and his experience growing up in North Korea. It wasn't particularly well-written, but I read the whole thing in a single day because the subject matter was so compelling. In a can't-tear-your-eyes-off-the-car-crash kind of way.
After growing up in a priviledge household in Pyongyang, Sungju's life changes dramatically when his father tells him the family are going on 'vacation'. The family leave their nice apartment, their dog and everything they have known to take the train to the far north of Korea where they move into a shack.
It is never made clear what Sungju's father did to deserve this banishment, but it is implied that any little slight can topple a career under this reigime, so it could have been something as small as a glance perceived as subordinate, or something so large as bad-mouthing the leader.
Life in the small town is nothing like life in Pyongyang. Food is scarce and no one is paid for the work they do, so most people have stopped going to their jobs, preferring to spend their days hunting for food or selling whatever they posess to buy it.
Eventually the situation gorws so grim, Sungju's father decides to make the difficult and perilous journey to China. He promises to return in a week.
Sungju and his mother wait, starving and freezing, until she decides she has to find her sister who might have food. Sungju begs to go with his mother, but she tells him it's safer to stay put. She will return in a week.
Sungju finds himself alone and starving. Parentless and incapable of looking after himself. His mother does not return and he grows desperate, heading out into the streets in search of food and friendship.
The book follows Sungju's journey from soft, coddled only son, to the feared leader of a street gang who travel Korea's far north, stealing and fighting and begging for what they need to survive.
This is a heart-breaking story from a country we are allowed few glimpses of. The reality Sungju writes about it very different from the colourful street parades and displays of military power the leaders put on display for Westerners. I found it fascinating and horrifying while at the same time inspired at human nature's resiliance and ability to survive.
I'd recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in seeing North Korea's reality.
But don't just listen to me. Here's the blurb:
Every Falling Star, the first book to portray contemporary North Korea to a young audience, is the intense memoir of a North Korean boy named Sungju who is forced at age twelve to live on the streets and fend for himself. To survive, Sungju creates a gang and lives by thieving, fighting, begging, and stealing rides on cargo trains. Sungju richly re-creates his scabrous story, depicting what it was like for a boy alone to create a new family with his gang, his “brothers”; to be hungry and to fear arrest, imprisonment, and even execution. This riveting memoir allows young readers to learn about other cultures where freedoms they take for granted do not exist.