Sunday, April 21, 2013

Escape From Camp 14: A Book Review

This book review contains NO SPOILERS. Enjoy! (:

Escape From Camp 14 is a book I heard about from John. And in discussing Korean historical/current events with my boyfriend, we both decided we would really wanted to read this book together and discuss it as we progressed. We both purchased our copy that exact day and began reading immediately.

My review for this book will be different than usual. Despite it's non-fiction aspect I still will refrain from any spoilers (even though Blaine Harden essentially summarizes it all for you in the beginning anyway). I don't normally review non-fiction so this will be a learning experience for the both of us. I hope you enjoy.

(photo source)

Title: Escape From Camp 14
Author: Blaine Harden
Genre: Non-fiction/Biography
Pages: 205
Published: March 29, 2012
Links: AmazonGoodreads

"I did not know about sympathy or sadness. They educated us from birth so that we were not capable of normal human emotions. Now that I am out, I am learning to be emotional. I have learned to cry. I feel like I am becoming human."

Book description (courtesy of Goodreads):

"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.

As I stated earlier, I'm unaccustomed to reviewing non-fiction pieces and will have to adjust my style to suit its needs.

What I found successful about this piece:

1. the unsympathetic tone

This piece tells Shin's horrific story in a tone that is surprisingly void of sympathy. Harden tells you what happened and how it happened. He'll interject some insights that Shin shared with him about his emotions at this point but he makes it very clear with statements such as "Shin felt ___" or "Shin didn't understand at the time _____." Harden clearly lays out the story for you to interpret. And while some would maybe prefer this story to be told more like a memoir narrative common with fictional novels, I like having my biographies as free of bias as possible.

2. historical background

I'm ashamed to admit how bad I am with history. I get a lot of the wars mixed up. It's all just very embarrassing. And as little as I knew about Korea prior to this book, I felt Harden did a great job at supplying necessary background information. I never felt lost. The endnotes were especially useful (though I often prefer footnotes over endnotes- but that may be David Foster Wallace's influence).

What surprised me about this piece:

1. It is not a secret that I enjoy my dystopian novels. And when I started this book I had no idea it harbored a real dystopian society. For those familiar with The Hunger Games Trilogy, the idea of labor camps in North Korea should be shockingly familiar. I found it to be a remarkable similarity to the Panem and the Capitol versus the laboring districts. I was floored at how something so repressiive (an element I enjoy so much in my fiction novels) could be emanating in real life. The details will shock you. This is not just a historical repression. It's an ongoing one.

2. I want to refrain from making any rash judgements, but the statements made about the South Koreans' reaction to the North Korean labor camps left me speechless. I'll leave it for you to read it on your own, but it was something that left me quite shocked.

How I thought the piece could improve:

1. I only had one complaint and that was the lack of psychological support on the analysis of North Korean defectors. Harden makes quick statements regarding the psychological patterns of defectors' lives after escaping North Korea but I could have used more support other than the simple statements that they have a hard time adjusting (because I actually could've guessed that one on my own). This piece of information was so important to me because even though the book did well in tying in the past and the present of Shin's life, what about his future? What hope is there for him to ever become this "human being" he aspires to be?

Final Verdict:

Overall, I found Escape From Camp 14 to be a worthwhile read. It really makes you sit back and think about how much of your life and those around you are really chalked up to luck. How much is given to you (or not) at birth and what you have to fight for.

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