Book Club: The Girl with Seven Names

Since I read this book a couple months ago, I haven’t been able to shut up about it. The Girl with Seven Names is a real memoir of an escaped North Korean woman. You’re already hooked, right?

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I don’t know about you, but I have a major fear of dying from and/or living in the aftermath of a major nuclear war. When a plane flies by and creates a sonic boom I sometimes stop and listen just to make sure it’s just on its merry way to my local airport. I never saw the movie The Interview, mostly because it didn’t look good but also because, like, what if one day everyone who watched it online is targeted in some hyper-planned attack? I’m even borderline worried about writing this post. Yes, this borders (or is?) paranoia and it’s not actually that big of a presence in my life but it comes up. Please don’t tell me how unlikely it is or how the US has gone through this before and we have more resources or whatever. I am allowed to be afraid even if you think it’s unfounded. This is just how anxiety works. Have we agreed to let me have my feelings? OK, great, moving on.

This book fascinated me in so many ways. First, it comes from the perspective of someone who had a relatively happy childhood in North Korea. The author lived through the Great Famine with enough to eat (though there are plenty of stories of her exposure to those who died of starvation in this time). She had a good family life overall and appreciated the natural landscape that she experienced in her home country. Then, as a teenager, she made a choice that caused her to never have any of that again. That — along with many other details in the book, including the social status of immigrants — made me realize how challenging it is for North Korean defectors to adjust to life outside of the place they’ve always known.

The book also details a lot of the horrors of North Korea and its propoganda-fueled regime. It seems fake and unthinkable and like a terrifying movie, but it’s real. The author attended public executions beginning at age 7. She saw a dead woman holding her barely-surviving baby. She forced herself to fake-cry after Kim Song-Il passed to avoid suspicion that she didn’t love the Great Leader enough (resulting in punishment, lowered social status, possibly eventual jailing or execution — yes, really).

The best part of the book, however, was getting the first-hand account of someone who lived and knew North Korea from birth. It gave me such a fresh and real perspective on how the regime works, and a great deal of empathy for the people who know nothing else. I was nervous to read it because I thought it would give me nightmares — my book club voted for it, not me — but it somehow made me less afraid and more in control of my thoughts because I learned so much.

When we finally got to discuss the book at our book club meeting, it was such a satisfying couple of hours. (Not to mention it was the first time I actually finished reading the book before the meeting.) The book isn’t a work of art — the editing is a little lacking and there are a few minor errors — but it’s a fascinating and very quick read (I read it on the flights to and from Kauai). Plus, there’s pictures. You get education, photos, and accomplishment of reading a book. And you have a guaranteed discussion partner (me) once you’re done! PLEASE read so we can discuss.

Now, what other books would you recommend?