I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Every Falling Star by Sungju Lee and Susan Elizabeth McClelland
Release date: September 13th, 2016
Publisher: Amulet Books
Genre: Young adult, memoir
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.
I lived in South Korea for two years. I taught English at a private academy and spent my weekends traveling around the country visiting Buddhist temples, museums and the many festivals that take place throughout the year. I learned so much about the country’s history but the subject I heard the most about was the desire for the unity of the north and south. The DMZ or Demilitarized Zone runs like a scar between the two Koreas. It separates the land into two radically different areas. The south is a mixture of high tech, non-stop, bright light cities and more traditional villages and farms. The north, which I only glimpsed through a set of binoculars, is secretive, isolated and restrictive. Yes, I’ve watched many documentaries about North Korea and have been fascinated by it, but this book offered a very human and emotional perspective on life within the Hermit Kingdom.
The story is essentially an exploration of survival and human resilience. It forces the reader to question what they would do if left with nothing and how far they would go to overcome such horrible obstacles. It is told through first person narrative by Sungju, a North Korean boy who belonged to a very well off family in Pyongyang. Everything in his life was perfect. He attended the best school, always had enough food and lived in a modern apartment. The country and its politics began to change in the late 1990s and as a result, Sungju and his parents are forcibly exiled to a small village in the north of the country. It’s such a radical difference from what he had been used to. There wasn’t any food or basic necessities and those who act against the state were publicly executed to frighten others into submission. Many of these aspects of North Korea have been frequently discussed in the media, but reading about it through the eyes of a child was devastating. The confusion and then slow realization of what was happening broke my heart. So much of Sungju’s life had been a lie!
While reading it was hard to remember that this book was actually non-fiction, a person’s real life story. It reads and flows like a dystopian novel. It has all the essentials: an authoritarian government, censorship, violence, the struggle for survival. Nobody wants to believe that such human cruelty can still exist, but sadly it does and this is why I firmly believe it’s a book that young people should read. It’s such an eye opener and to see what the author has accomplished…wow!
My only wish was that the ending wasn’t so rushed. A large amount of the book focuses on Sungju’s membership in a gang of boys who fight their way to survival throughout the country. However, the actual escape from North Korea is written as such a minor aspect of his story. For me, that would be the MAJOR part of the story, what everything led up to. It just ended up being a few pages. It was very emotional though because I was firmly invested in his story from start to finish. I look forward to reading more memoirs from the people of North Korea. It’s important to hear their voice and not just the narrative the government would like the world to hear