Every Falling Star by Sungju Lee and Susan McClelland
Published September 13, 2016 by Amulet Books, 336 pp.
Copy provided by publisher and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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.
Honestly, other memoirs or accounts of people who have escaped North Korea read very academically. They describe the gulags, the bleakness of the places perfectly, but it all seems clinical. There is nothing wrong with this, and this does not diminish their ordeal in any way, just that for me as a reader, I tend to feel detached, and it’s like I see theories and numbers rather than people.
Every Falling Star, in comparison, feels much more personal, and is more striking because this is from the perspective of a kid that has gone from one end of the socio-economic ladder to another. The loss of innocence for me is hard to read and digest, because I can’t imagine just one day having everything you know taken away from you (that part where they took away his dog though, I’m just-) because of a dissenting opinion that was expressed.
This book is detailed, from how Sungju feels to his surroundings, and you feel like you’re with the narrator as they hop on and off a train or steal foods from marketplaces. I loved it best when it came to relating the friendship and brotherhood of their gang. It was like a little ray of hope in the book.
If you want to start reading North Korean accounts, Every Falling Star is a good book to start with. While I wouldn’t exactly say this is suitable for a young audience, this is a book geared towards a younger audience than say, Nothing to Envy. If I’m going to compare this to a genre, I’d say this is dystopian – all-powerful, sanitizing government, contrary opinions silenced – but with no hero or heroine in sight.
There aren’t any numbers here – just a kid who wants to tell his story now that he’s able to, and hopes that by doing so it’ll help shed light onto what’s happening everyday in a country largely isolated from outsiders. It’s also a view into a country that keeps a tight leash on information released not only to the world, but also to its own citizens.
It’s an amazing feat to make a topic like this accessible to younger audiences, but Every Falling Star manages it well. This presents the problems and issues in a way they can understand and put into perspective.
I’ll be looking out for this in local bookstores! I’m really looking forward to the release in a few weeks.