I know we don’t review too many books around here (unless you count comic books, which we still don’t review that often), but I just read a really good book, so I’m going to talk about it! And you’re going to LISTEN!
Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden is a true story about the only person to ever have been born into a North Korean prison AND successfully escape. Which may or may not have also been part of the plot to Dark Knight Rises. It tells the story of Shin, a child created because his father and mother were forcefully (and randomly) matched together for intercourse by their prison guards as a reward for being hard workers. Shin grew up in a society that was completely shut out from the outside world. Even unlike other North Koreans, who are force-fed propaganda from the Kim dynasty, Shin and his prison-birthed peers only live and know to fill work quotas or be killed by their unnamed masters. Not until he is in his twenties and befriends a world traveler that got send to the prison, does he learn about the rest of planet Earth, and it gives him the temptation to finally escape. An escape plan, that Shin admits, is only motivated because he wants to eat cooked meat (which is not available at the camp).
The first leg of the story is probably the most interesting. Daily life inside the camp is chronicled in excruciating detail. If you ever wondered what a real life prison state would be like to live in, this is as good an example as you’re going to get. If people walk in groups more than two, they are shot. If a guy interacts with a girl without the guards permission, they are shot. If you steal anything, anything at all, you are shot. One of Shin’s grade school classmates had *a few grains of rice* in her pocket, and the teacher beat her to death with a stick in front of the entire class. Shin felt no emotion towards this because the only world he has ever known involves obeying the rules or being killed. In Shin’s eyes, the girl deserved to die. The camp breeds a complete level of untrust among the inhabitants, as snitching on each other is encouraged and rewarded. Shin thinks of his mother as competition for food, and she beats him regularly for eating her rations. He even goes as far as to sell his mother out to the guards, which leads to her death. He just thought he was doing what was right by the world he lived in. If he *didn’t* snitch her out, HE may have gotten killed for *not* snitching on her. It’s a pretty messed up situation.
The second leg of the story involves Shin’s teenage and early twenty years, where he has fully settled into life in the huge prison state, and has accepted that he’ll probably die at some point working in the fields when he’s older. Then he meets a guy named Park who tells him of the outside world (and all the food, which is tempting because everyone in the prison is starving), and Shin and Park plan an escape. The next bit of the story is the long, arduous process of how to not only get out of the prison; but how should a penniless, completely lost and naive Shin manage to get out of North Korea, and somehow make his way to a place that will accept him?
The final leg of the story is how Shin is adapting to the outside world for the first time in his life. Not surprisingly, he has some problems. His mental state is less than ideal, and he struggles to relate to or trust anyone. He eventually becomes an advocate for drawing attention to the North Korean camps, giving speeches, and relying almost entirely on others to support him. When people want to stop supporting him and tell him to create a life on his own, he gets upset. Sadly, he becomes something of an entitled asshole. That’s really sad to say, because of the hellish life he was given beforehand, but Shin kind of becomes a mooch and a dick. Apparently this attitude is common among others who have fled North Korea, but Shin’s supporters say he’s a worse case than most. I still feel bad for him because of his early years, but at the same time, he needs a life plan, and he isn’t willing to make one.
The book is also just as much a history lesson of North Korea. Every step of the way, Harden fills us in with the North Korean situation as a whole, parallel to Shin’s life. And it’s super freaking interesting. Harden will go off on these long tangents in every chapter, and I didn’t mind at all. It’s like we’re paying for the story of Shin, and then we’re getting the awesome North Korean history lesson for free. Some highlights include how the “upper class” in North Korea live (modest apartment buildings, where a status symbol of wealth is having a rice cooker), or story of a white guy who walked into North Korea during the Korean War and became a celebrity. You will learn all about how the Kim dynasty has ruined the country, and all of the international problems that face the awful nation. It seems like North Korea’s government is the world’s worst marketing department, for itself. While Shin was slowly dying in a bleak prison to which he committed no real crime other than being born to a guy already in the prison, Kim Jong-un was enjoying his private water park.
It’s a relatively quick read, at 200 pages, and I read the entire thing on the toilet (TMI). Not in a single poop, but over a series of poops. It’s not only an interesting story/state of the world, but it also makes you think about the extreme contrasts other people can have in their lives in comparison to yours. For example, if I was in North Korea, the very poop I was taking while reading the book would have to be harvested out of my own toilet and given to the government for fertilizing the country’s crops. Oh no! Diarrhea again! [PUBLIC BEATING]
I wholeheartedly recommend that you check out Escape From Camp 14, especially if you have any interest in the mess that is North Korea. Or, if you know me personally, borrow it from me. DO IT!