Friday, April 27, 2012
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. -- Viking
It might come as a shock to some of you that I am reviewing a non-fiction title rather than my father; however, I occasionally do read them... especially when the story is as amazing as ESCAPE FROM CAMP 14: ONE MAN'S REMARKABLE ODYSSEY FROM NORTH KOREA TO FREEDOM IN THE WEST by Blaine Harden. This book is about Shin Dong-hyuk, one of the only people born in a North Korean prison camp to have escaped and survived; and it is fascinating -- I couldn't put down this book.
While ESCAPE FROM CAMP 14 was utterly gripping, it was also a darkly depressing book. I don't know if I can go so far as to say that I enjoyed this one, but I did appreciate it; and furthermore, I liked that I learned so much from reading it. I am the first to tell you that I'm not that savvy on a lot of current events (and I don't know a heck of a lot about North Korea), and maybe I'm naive, but I was blown away by what's going on in this country. I knew the political regime was oppressive, but I honestly had no idea that political prisons like Camp 14 even existed.
ESCAPE FROM CAMP 14 covers a lot of ground for a relatively short book. It looks at Shin's years at the prison camp, what happened to him after his escape and how he acclimated to America; but it also provides some background and history of North Korea. Basically, I found just about everything in this book to be pretty incredible and interesting, and I'm hard pressed to come up with a favorite part.
I found the sections about Shin's years at the camp to be horrific and they reminded me of some of the Holocaust books that I've read in the past. Many of his stories were larger-then-life and quite difficult for me to grasp from my cozy couch in Central PA. What I can say for sure is that Shin's life experiences reminded me of just how fortunate I am to be born in America. I think I all too often take things for granted.
The parts about Shin's escape were also intriguing especially as they pertained to Shin's ability (or inability) to fit into society. I thought it was interesting just how much luck played a factor in his escape and I was amazed by Shin's courage and resourcefulness. I probably shouldn't have been, but I was surprised by how hard the transition to "normal" society was for Shin. He had only ever lived in a prison camp and been treated horribly by almost everyone including his family. He didn't understand kindness and had a difficult time trusting individuals nevertheless making friends. While there are organizations in place to help him, I think Shin is still trying to cope with all of the changes that came with his freedom.
Finally, I appreciated that Mr. Harden did provide some background about North Korea's political system. I knew the basics, but it was nice to learn some of the history behind the country. I finished this book in awe that a country with such brutal leaders exists in our world. It truly scares the heck out of me!
I have to give a lot of credit to the author for tackling this story. I'm sure it wasn't always easy to research and write, but I think he did an excellent job of showing the many sides to this story. Shin wasn't always the most reliable of storytellers. I am not saying this in a critical way at all because I have no idea how Shin is even able to speak about the atrocities he experienced, but his story has changed a few times along the way. Mr. Harden no way shied from showing the positive and negative aspects of Shin's character, and I actually am more willing to accept this book as truth because of that.
ESCAPE FROM CAMP 14 is a very special book about an unbelievable man's story, and I think all Americans could benefit from reading it. Highly recommended.
Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this book.