Let me preface this with saying that my dad is a sucker for a good inspirational true story. So much so, that when he finds one, he buys extra copies to lend to all his friends and family to make sure they can share in his experience.
I’m more of a fiction fan, so I usually procrastinate reading whatever new book he is lending to me. But eventually I give in… and then I can’t put the book down until I finish. This book was no different.
I am blown away by Yeonmi Park’s story of how she escaped North Korea and the terrors that go on in North Korea and China. Yeonmi is an incredible girl who has survived horrors far beyond her 23-ish years. She has opened my eyes to the plight of North Korean refugees and has reminded me to be grateful for my own problems and how small they seem in comparison to those less fortunate around the world.
Spoiler alert: She lives.
Get it? It’s an autobiography.
I actually don’t think I need to include a warning for spoilers here, because it is obvious she lives from the fact that she wrote this book. So, you can read this book review whether or not you have read the book.
I’m not exactly sure how to have a one-sided book club conversation, but here it goes.
What was most surprising to you about Yeonmi’s life in North Korea? For me, until now, I have been completely ignorant to the brainwashing that goes on in North Korea. It is to the point where they never refer to their leader without saying, “our dear leader” and they never refer to Americans without saying either “American bastards” or “Yankee devil.” Even math is not just math, but, “If you kill one American bastard and your comrade kills two, how many dead American bastards do you have?” But worse than that is the conditions that these people live in. Lack of power, medicine, and most of all, food. Their basic needs of survival are barely being met.
Yeonmi escaped North Korea at age 13 on the brink of starvation, and writes, “I was willing to risk my life for the promise of a bowl of rice.” Her biggest dream up until that point was to buy a bucket of bread and eat until she was full. How does this compare with your greatest dreams at 13 years old? Honestly it makes me feel a little embarrassed at how meaningless my dreams must have been. You know, the usual desire to fit in and be popular (don’t judge).
After escaping to China, however, things got even worse. Yeonmi may have been able to fill her belly, but she was by no means free. China has no refugee protection for North Koreans, and will immediately send them back to be punished. The only reason women are brought into China from North Korea is to be illegally trafficked.
Which brings me to ask, what do you think is worse: one, being stuck in North Korea where you are living in complete poverty, possibly starving to death where all your choices are made for you? Or two, being trafficked or sold in China? Personally, I think I would take starving to death, because at least then you are in charge of your own body. But I’ve never had to go hungry before and I don’t fully understand the desperation that goes along with that.
To me, the most unfortunate part is that the women who are escaping North Korea to China have no idea what they are getting themselves into. They don’t know that they are leaving one form of hell just to enter into a new one, so they don’t really get to make that choice for themselves.
What surprises you most about Yeonmi’s story? It scares me how controlling and powerful North Korean leaders are, even to those who have escaped. When Yeonmi eventually, makes it to South Korea where she is able to attempt to assimilate herself into the culture and start a new life, she is still terrified of North Korea and what they might do to her for speaking out about the truth of what life is like there. Writing this book was a huge step for Yeonmi, because she is daring to stick her neck out and share her experiences, despite what consequences may follow.
I would definitely recommend this book to a friend. I was taken on an emotional roller coaster from start to finish and it helped me understand a part of the world I knew very little about. The book also provided an opportunity for me to appreciate my own life, self reflect, and consider many blessings I sometimes take for granted.
What were your thoughts on this book? What surprised you? How did you feel about it? Please share, I would love to hear!
P.S. Next month’s book will be My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman. You can read the goodreads review here.