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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

BPL Book Discussion: Escape From Camp 14

On Monday the BPL Monday book discussion group met to discuss the emotional nonfiction title, Escape from Camp 14 by journalist Blaine Harden with help from the subject of the book Shin Dong-hyuk.  From the publisher:
"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 Dong-hyuk 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."
So as you can see, this is a pretty shocking and serious book, but it makes for a great discussion.  Surprisingly, I could not find questions from the traditional book club sources, but I did find these from San Jose State University.

Let's move on to the discussion itself.
  • I altered the general opening vote since I knew everyone would feel weird raising their hand to say they "liked" a book about horrific atrocities, so this month we voted on Glad I Read It (11 votes), Wish I Stayed Ignorant (1 vote), and So-so (2 votes). So overall people were very glad they read this troubling book.  The one who voted on wishing she stayed ignorant said it was a frustration issue-- I read it, I felt horrible, but I also knew there was nothing I could do.
  • Instead of letting someone talk about why they "liked" the book to open the discussion (as I normally do), I instead felt it was important to engage in a discussion about the violence and disturbing revelations here right at the start.  I used the first question from the discussion guide to get the ball rolling on this issue. Question: Some say this book is too violent and disturbing and should not be read for that reason. Others say it’s important we learn about these things happening. After reading this book, how do you feel about how it handles violence? Responses :
    • I am a sensitive "viewer." Reading is often an easier way for me to "view" violence but while reading this book, I wasn't sure if I could go on at points.  I was glad I stuck it out because of how much I learned.
    • For me, the violence was buffered by Shin's position.  He was born in the camp, he didn't have anything else to judge his behavior by except for the violent guards and an abusive mother.
    • As I read, my emotions swung between "this book is great" to "no, this book is awful."  That pulling on your emotions while teaching you something is what made me enjoy reading it.
    • The shear number of prisoners is almost more staggering to me than the violence inflicted upon them...200,000 people!
    • Also, the size of this one camp...35 miles long and 25 miles wide.
    • And that is just one of many camps, chimed in another.
    • This book was hard to read, but I needed it to educate myself.
  • Related Questions: [These questions and comments came up throughout the discussion; we kept coming back to them; I have tried to compile them all here in one place. But note, if you are leading a discussion of this book, these are central questions and issues that dominated people's responses in our group.] What can we do to stop this? How much did you know about N. Korea before this? And follow up, since we know very little, do you trust Shin and Harden's portrayal of the situation? Responses:
    • For the most part, the group believed Harden's book. He goes through great lengths to explain how he corroborated Shin's story and adds other geo-political information.
    • I knew nothing before hand.
    • This book made me want to read more and get a better handle on the entire situation before I even think about how we are going to stop these camps.
    • When world leaders meet with North Korea, NK won't even let the camps enter the discussion.  They are off the table.  If they come up, NK stops negotiations on anything else.
    • We can see them camps from satellites but no one is doing anything.
    • I have been to South Korea twice, I have been to the DMZ between South and North.  There are people there trying to do something, but it is just a spit in the bucket.
    • I've been raving about this book to everyone I know telling them they should read it.  If enough people know, there will be momentum for change.
    • NK Camps don't have a celebrity spokesperson, but after reading this book, it is clear Shin understands his burden as an escapee is that he must spread the story.
    • One thing this book taught me is that simply storming in and freeing everyone would not help them.  They don't know or understand life without living in prison.  Look at all the help Shin got and it was still hard for him.
    • This book made me aware of one person's story, but it also made me think that the Korean War is a part of our world history that I do not know enough about.
    • Politics in the region are changing. Maybe China will begin to help stop NK.
    • Look at how long it took South Africa to change even after the world new about apartheid.
    • There is nothing of value for the world within the NK borders, so it is not a priority for the world to stop the atrocities there. Sad but true.
  • We talked at length about the way Harden chose to write the book and his "author intentions." I feel it is very important to discuss author intentions when you read an emotional and politically charged book in general.
    • We had trouble figuring out how we could help make this situation better because of how Harden told Shin's story. He gave us no answers. He is simply presenting the information to us.
    • It is sensational!-- said one member. No--chimed in another right away-- this all happened to Shin, we need to know it all, bloody and awful details, all of it.
    • I liked how at the beginning and end of the book Harden summarizes and repeats all the key points.
    • Yes, I also liked the repetition. Since everything in here was new to me, that helped.
    • I liked that Harden ended the story with Shin's first successful talk to a group (after a few lackluster attempts). It is uplifting and made me think there is hope to free others.
    • This was a challenging read, but not impossible.  Harden began each chapter with Shin's personal story and then went into the geo-political situation. It could be hard to follow since it was all new to me, but it was necessary.
    • I appreciated all of the history here because I was learning it for the first time.
    • I liked that he wrote it in his journalistic style. There were short chapters. He didn't over-write. It moved at a good pace but taught me things.
    • He described the quandary of the food donation program and its complexity to us very well.
    • The partnership between Shin the refugee and Harden the journalist may offer a solution to this genocide and others. We need more of these pairings to effectively get the stories of atrocities out there.
  • Question: The Introduction is titled “Never Heard the Word Love.” Assess the camp culture Shin was raised in. Is love something we learn culturally or is it an innate thing people must do? Do different people have different capacities to love? Responses:
    • Before I read this book, I thought everyone was born with the capacity to love.  I now question this.
    • This book shows that love has to be taught, modelled, and expressed.
    • Shin never saw love. He had no family in our sense of it.  His mother was competition for food and beat him.
    • When you are hungry, nothing else matters.  You cannot have emotions or understand them if you are literally starving. 
    • He only understands love after he escapes.  And then only has guilt for turning his mother and brother in to be killed after he escapes. Can't have guilt without understanding love.
    • Speaking of how awful his mother was, someone said that they wanted to know more about her, not to defend her but to understand her better.  We will never know her story though.
  • I asked the group to just throw out their thoughts and feelings about Shin himself:
    • Brave
    • Naive
    • Self-Absorbed and selfish-- even after he escapes and lives in SK and US.
    • Love starved
    • Lucky--the circumstances for his escape her just perfect
    • Resilient
    • Conflicted
    • I didn't like him for much of the book mostly because I could no identify with the horrors he witnessed and lived through.  I was tempted many times to say, just get the hell out of there. But when I thought about it, I knew he could not.  I thought he should no better, but then I remembered, he did not know better.  He was not taught another way.
    • I admired how he dealt with moving through China.
    • When he got to the SK Embassy in China, I began to see him as someone who could tell this story to the world.
    • He was street smart for having no education.  His survival skills were honed in the camp, so when he was out and on the run, he had that expertise to rely on.
    • I was shocked by his sense of justice that he carried inside himself even having grown up without justice modeled.
    • His father showed him love, but Shin could not recognize it until much later.
    • He was very insightful. He admitted that he had trouble sharing his story with the world because he knew it was only his story, he did not want to speak for others.
  • We talked about the problems we Americans have understanding what goes on in North Korea because their society is so different from the rest of the world:
    • Snitching is a key component to North Korean society. Everyone snitches and is expected to turn on their family.
    • I have been confused by all of the new, young NK leader's bluster in the news, trying to provoke the rest of the world, even though the country is poor and the people are starving.  Reading this book and learning about how North Koreans are raised and brainwashed, it makes more sense. I have a better understanding of the current situation there.
    • We can't understand how to deal with the NK problems because we can't understand how they think. Our ways of combating tyranny would fail because the people of NK are so locked down that they don't even really know what freedom is.
    • Look at NK refugees in SK or US.  Many of them have trouble holding on to a job.  But think about what we learned from Shin.  If you quit work in NK you are killed. Think about how liberating it would be for a North Korean to leave a job and live to tell it.  No wonder they quit so often; to them the ability to walk away from a job is the ultimate freedom.  But we see it as "lazy" or "irresponsible." This illustrates how differently their brains work from ours.
    • Books like this let us see the issue from another point of view.
  • Question: Do you think Shin will ever be "well" emotionally? Responses:
    • He has PTSD, that lasts for life.
    • He will always have problems.
    • He tells Harden that while he might seem better at reacting with the correct emotions are the right times, it is not natural.  Every interaction with people requires his complete concentration. He has to think about how he is supposed to respond.
    • He is trying to heal through his work telling his story to audiences so that he can help free everyone he left behind.  But he lives with survivor guilt too.
  • We ended the discussion talking about the 10 Camp Rules Shin had to memorize in the camp school.  Harden checked these with a former guard in Camp 14 who also escaped.  We talked about their placement at the end of the book more than the rules themselves:
    • I was glad to see the actual rules since we had read mentions of them throughout the book.
    • Even after finishing the book, they were even worse than I thought.
    • If these were at the beginning of the book, I wouldn't have believed the rules. Actually, I wouldn't have believed the entire book.  Having them at the end was a good choice.
    • They underline how sadistic brutal, and scary the situation was. And, it made Shin's courage even more apparent.
Readalikes: I read and loved this year's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson which is fiction set in North Korea during a similar time period as this nonfiction title.  All I can say is, Escape from Camp 14 makes me admire The Orphan Master's Son even more.  I thought some of the novel might have been exaggerated.  I know see that the opposite is true.  It is actually even worse. Another member of the book club has read both books and added that she wished she had read Harden's nonfiction before Johnson's novel because then she would have been less skeptical of Johnson's accounts.  Either way, they make an amazing pairing.

Harden begins the book by acknowledging that most "camp" memoirs American have read deal with concentration camps, but that Shin's story is very different because he never knew of life on the outside and had no family. But, he does mention the classic books of the Holocaust Night by Elie Wiesel and The Diary of Anne Frank.  Both are readalike options.

During our discussion another participant said that the situation in North Korea is a form of modern genocide.  When people started asking what we can do to help stop these camps, we were all at a loss for action.  She suggested a book her husband read, the award winning A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power, as a way to educate ourselves on how people can and do act on stopping genocide.

Kathy, our fearless RA Dream Team Leader, has not read this book with her group yet, but when I mentioned how as a group we loved the book but felt bad saying that since what is described in it is so awful, reminded me that this is how both groups felt when reading The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.  While the horrors Walls and her siblings went through were by no means as bad as what Shin endured, the emotional response of the reader is similar.  You feel bad for loving the book and finding it compelling and engrossing when such terrible things are happening.

This made me think about the fact that there are dozens of memoir options out there about people who have lived through horrors and survived.  That could be the appeal for some people. Click here for a long list of memoirs, most of which fit this appeal.

Finally, if you just want to read more on North Korea (which is my personal top appeal here), check out this list from Goodreads.

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