I don’t even know where to start.
So I was all ready to post a silly happy post, about my crazy day where I left the house at 8:30 and didn’t really return to relax or anything until 11:30. Er, p.m., that last number, and a.m. the first. I really am not that impressed with myself when I only put in 3 hour days. Actually, that would be so rare that I would be impressed. Bring on the 3-hour days! Whither afternoon naps?! Let’s bring back the obligatory nap of childhood.
So, as you all know by now, I review books over at 5 Minutes for Books. Last Saturday I got Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West in the mail, and looking at the accompanying info, I realized the author would be at Powells tonight (Thursday)(ok so I’m a little late posting). We decided to go as a family, which meant everyone had to read the book quickly. In real life, that meant Elliot and Ilsa finished it and I mostly finished it, but with homework and dance team and work and managing to avoid doing laundry, we didn’t all get a chance to read it.
Frankly, if I’d read it first, I might not have let Ilsa read it. But then author/journalist Blaine Harden quoted from Elie Wiesel’s Night: A teenager should know no more violence than he gets from literature. His point is that growing up in the North Korean camps, Shin didn’t even know that literature existed, but I also took the point that my teens are plenty old enough to know what goes on in the world.
The book looks at the gulags in North Korea, through the eyes of Shin Dong-hyuk, who was born in Camp 14. His parents were given to each other in a “reward marriage” which meant guards allowed them to spend 5 nights a year together. I don’t think his mother loved him, and a result, he didn’t love her or even know what the word meant. His life contained no love, mercy, kindness, dignity. All he knew was hunger and competition for food, and the rules of the camp, which taught him to snitch and then stand by as other children were beaten to death. After he informed on his own mother and her escape attempt, the guard took the credit for the information, and Shin was kept in an underground prison for 8 months and tortured unbearably. He was 13.
The description of the camp is nearly unbearable to read. But, frankly, even more heartbreaking is his description of the painfulness of learning to live free. He spends time with a Korean-American family in Southern California, and the more he learns of how loving families interact with and treat each other, the worse he feels about the kind of son he was. He feels incredible guilt because he’s survived and escaped, and there are tens of thousands still in these camps. “I escaped physically, but not psychologically,” he says at one point in the book.
I don’t want to review the book here–I will link my post at 5MFB when it goes live. (Um, when? I guess check back on Tuesday, which is when I’ll recap what I read and reviewed this month) But I want to reiterate that I think this is a tremendously important book to read. I’m not sorry I had my teens read it, even though parts of it made me want to close my eyes and not breath, or scream and rage at the injustice of it all. It’s heart-breaking. But the thing is, we read Night and Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl; we view those as hard but important and even necessary; but this is not like that. This isn’t history–this is current events. You can go on Google Earth and look at these camps, which the North Korean government denies exist. (Note: I’m sort of quoting Harden at this point. I have not, for example, gone on Google Earth to see for myself)
So you should go read this book. It’s only 200 pages. 3 of us, with normally full lives, managed to read it in 5 days.
I’ll be back soon with a normal post. In the meantime, here is a photo of Elliot getting my copy signed. Why did I take a photo? Because he can get school credit (not academic credit, but he has to put in so many hours of extracurricular stuff) for this. I totally support this.
The date of the reading coincided with the date of our arrival in Nouakchott as a family for the first time. 11 years ago, we started this life of being global nomads. Even though we’ve been settled in the US for a year and a half now, even though I stayed in the same country for the entire calendar year of 2011 (and very depressing that was), we still view ourselves that way. Live overseas for long enough and you basically ruin yourself for normal everyday life in your home country; you will always be a bit of a misfit. But I’ll leave that for another post. To celebrate, I made couscous for the first time since we left Morocco. It was awfully tasty. It was ready just when we needed to leave for the reading, so we scarfed down some hearty snacks, and ate it at 10 p.m. Which was sort of appropriate.
It’s not nearly as pretty as Khadija’s was, but then, she’s had more practice.