Every Falling Star by Sungju Lee & Susan Elizabeth McClelland
Published: September 13th 2016 by Amulet Books
Genre: non-fiction, memoir/autobiography
Rating: 5/5 stars – ★★★★★
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 bought this book in July because it seemed so interesting. It’s a non-fiction book aimed to a young audience, a memoir of a boy’s life in North Korea, an autobiography. I knew I had to read it immediately. I’ve always wanted to learn more about North Korea, but never felt like I could truly trust any sources. After all, people with a different ethnicity or from another country might unwittingly let prejudices and subjectivity slip in. But reading from the perspective of a boy who grew up in North Korea? Yes, that I definitely want to experience.
The book starts with two very interesting things: a disclaimer of some sorts, and a brief history of 20th-century Korea.
Some family names have been changed to protect relatives still living in North Korea. The names of my brothers, though, are real, in the hope that they are still alive and will read this book.
Until we meet again.
That reminder alone, that the names of these people have been changed for their own safety, made me realize how dangerous life can be in North Korea. Especially for the family of people who have escaped the country.
The brief history is a great recap for those of us with limited knowledge of Korea’s history, and will help you better understand life in North Korea as Sungju Lee experienced it.
Sungju Lee’s story
Sungju Lee starts his story at the age of 6 -or 7. He’s a little boy living in Pyongyang, the capital, with his parents and dog. His father is a military officer in the Korean People’s Army. They lived a pretty great life: they were never lacking in anything, food was plenty, Sungju went to a good school and a taekwondo sojo after school. He looked up to his idol, Kim Il-sung -their eternal leader.
About three years after Kim Il-sung died, so when Sungju is 10, his life takes a turn. Sungju’s family is sent on a ‘vacation’ to the countryside (Gyeong-seong). His parents don’t want to tell him too much about this vacation or why they have to leave their Pyongyang apartment and belongings behind, because they want to shield him from the truth.
Life in Gyeong-seong isn’t good at all. There’s no money and almost no work to be found, which eventually means no food. His father decides to try and cross the border to China to trade/smuggle and earn money that way, and his mother goes to his aunt to see whether there’s any money or food to be had there. Sungju is left on his own at age 12. That’s when he has to start stealing in order to survive, and when he has to live on the streets. It’s the start of him forming his own ‘gang’ to survive the increasingly more difficult life in North Korea.
My thoughts on his story
I always find it awkward to review autobiographies, because who am I to judge someone’s life? And I feel terrible saying it’s an interesting read, because he actually lived through this. It’s not just a story, it’s someone’s reality. But the fact of the matter is that this is an interesting read.
I learned quite a bit about North Korea I wasn’t aware of. For example, that North Koreans call their country Joseon, after the last and most influential dynasty of Korea. It’s all these little pieces of knowledge that are so hard to find with a country so completely closed off. I’d like to think this book has made me more aware. The hatred and fear of the Americans, Japanese and South-Koreans has been drilled into North-Koreans minds from the get-go.
This story was even more informative because it was told from a child’s point of view at first. Children don’t question the things they’ve been taught all their lives if they don’t have any access to different sources or knowledge. Seeing how Sungju Lee revered his leader and country may seem baffling to us, but it’s all he had ever known.
History -or what I now call propaganda- was often the first, fourth, and final subject of the day, and the lessons almost always began with the same introduction.
This shows how indoctrination truly works, as well as the following passage.
…and oversaw biweekly revealing sessions, in which the class lists the things they had not done right. [….] In these sessions, we also had to condemn our peers for what they did wrong. The goal was to help us become good citizens, of course, and follow the rules of the country.
It’s clear that these sessions are used to showcase one thing: obey the rules, or we will know and condemn you.
It’s easy to overthrow these ideals and thoughts as an outsider. Growing up like this however, I cannot imagine. Even after reading this book and learning so much about him, I could never truly understand.
Another aspect I found very interesting is the clear difference between life in the capital and life in the countryside. Living in Pyongyang is for those good citizens, the military men like Sungju’s father who obey and do not step out of line. Once you do step out of line, you’ll be sent to far less fortunate places. It’s especially interesting because while the divide between rich and poor -favored and unfavored by the leader- is so big, Sungju himself was not even aware of it. As a kid, he had no idea there were people on Joseon who suffered. After all, isn’t this the best country ever? Why would anyone lack in food?
Reading about Sungju’s life on the streets was harrowing. It’s heartbreaking to see what so many children have to do in order to survive. How hard surviving actually is. I know that this doesn’t only happen in North Korea, but reading about it is still difficult. His life as a streetboy and in a gang takes up the majority of this book, I’d say. How quickly his innocence was stolen, and how lesser fortunate boys had never had any to begin with. I can’t really say much about this part of the book, because it’s something you’ll have to read for yourself. I wouldn’t be able to do his experiences justice in this review.
His eventual escape from North Korea happens very late on in the book. It only takes up a very small amount of the book. What receives more emphasis is what he experienced and did with his life after arriving in South-Korea. As a North Korean ‘defector’ and teenager, he felt like people looked down on him. He wasn’t treated as an equal by his classmates in school, and other South-Koreans in general. It’s intriguing to see him deal with the prejudice of his peers.
What struck me most, though, was the part at the end where he talks about what is needed for reunification according to him. He talks about what we, as the West, as China, and as South-Korea have to do to prepare for reunification. He stated that there were nearly 30 000 North Korean defectors in South Korea. That we have to work with them, not isolate them. “If we cannot be their friends, we cannot prepare for reunification.” And the following part too,
“First step: unite all the Koreans within South Korea. Get rid of this mentality that South Koreans are superior and North Koreans are inferior. This cannot solve any problems. Approach each other as friends and learn.
My review for this book is so long already, so I’ll keep it short here. This book gave me so much to think about. It taught me a lot about North Korea, a country and people I know very little about.
It’s beautiful, it’s heartbreaking and absolutely devastating. It’s someone’s life and experiences. And I think we would all benefit from reading his book. Please go and read this book. It’s aimed at a young audience and almost reads like a novel, so don’t be intimidated by the fact that it’s a memoir.