The rarest of memoirs: inside North Korea
Every Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea
By Sungju Lee & Susan McClelland
Amulet Books (Abrams)
Sungju Lee’s writing submerges the reader in the astounding and primitive cruelty of life for the average North Korean.
by Brianna Westervelt
How much do we know about North Korea and what goes on behind those strict borders? Not much. That nation's true harshness is carefully hidden behind the façade of its shining, orderly capital city, Pyongyang. But the facade is all we see when we see North Korea on the news — and we only see that through the lens of North Korean state television, the country being virtually sealed off to outsiders. Which makes Sungju Lee’s surreal memoir Every Falling Star read like a novel. The conditions experienced by North Koreans, most of whom are unlucky enough not to live in Pyongyang, is so primitive, so awful, so murderously cruel, that it is hard to believe that anyone lives this way in the 21st century.
Lee grew up in Pyongyang, so he knew a life of relative ease and privilege. That is, until his family was forced out of the capital city and he saw a whole different side of his once-beloved home nation. He loses his parents in the most cruel manner possible and is forced to survive by running with a gang of other abandoned young boys. Finally, he devises an escape plan and miraculously pulls it off. He looks to the heavens for inspiration. “I made a wish whenever I saw a falling star,” he writes. Lee (and McClelland, who adapted this book for Young Adult readership) follows this motif through to the book's very satisfying conclusion.
Years later, Lee looks back on his childhood in Pyongyang and, instead of regarding it as a happier, innocent time, regards it with disgust. Knowing that it is a mirage thrown up to project wealth and stability to the outside world — he wonders “why I was ever in such awe of our capital city, why everyone held it in such great esteem.” In reality, North Korea observers have long known the truth about the poverty, cruelty, and violence of that country. Now, thanks to Every Falling Star, a new generation of readers will learn the truth as well.