"Maps are borders that keep people in and others out," an immigration officer tells one of the young protagonists of Korean-American author Krys Lee's new novel, at the moment that he hands him his newly minted US passport.
In How I Became a North Korean, Lee (author of acclaimed short story collection "Drifting House") combines the stories of three very different teenagers, shaped into a make-shift family when they find themselves forced into life in a cave, perched on the border of two countries – China and North Korea – each perilous in its own way.
The three young protagonists represent a diverse mix. Yongju is a successful student from an important North Korean family. Jangmi is a young woman whose rough childhood has caught up with her forcing her to become a smuggler of goods across the Chinese-North Korean border. And Danny is a Chinese-American teen outcast who has struggled to fit in at his California high school.
The novel begins when the narrator, Yongju, attends an exquisite yet awkward party in honor of North Korea's Dear Leader. The other guests include prominent North Korean families displaying their wealth in attire and lavish manners. But if they came for display what they get instead is violence, as Dear Leader uses the occasion to assassinate Yongju's father, forcing Yongju to flee for his life.
At the same time Jangmi, while living the life of a smuggler, has also been carrying a secret: She is pregnant with the child of a married comrade. She desperately searches for a husband to give her child a father, and hopes that she has found one in China. But when she crosses the border to marry him, he soon finds out that the unborn child is not his and throws Jangmi out in the streets. She suddenly finds herself alone and helpless in a foreign country.
Meanwhile, Danny, humiliated by cruel classmates in California, has returned to China – and his missionary Chinese mother – for comfort. Instead of solace, however, he is jarred to discover his still-married mother hiding their church's Deacon in her bedroom closet. Danny then runs away, trying to flee his unhappy memories and the pain he's had to endure in both homes across the world.
The three teens finally find themselves in a cave – sitting in China but facing North Korea – even as they strive to keep each other safe and to offer mutual encouragement. All, although each for different reasons, are trying to get across the boarder into North Korea. Their mentor, a seemingly harmless Christian missionary, shows his real colors towards the end of the novel, potentially sabotaging their escape.
Lee successfully creates well-formed characters and makes readers care about their struggles. Although the setting is exotic, many of the hardships and perils the characters face come closer to home, including Danny's shameful trauma at the hands of ruthless high school bullies who chain a seemingly eternal blackmail on him, and sweet Jangmi's unimaginable sacrifices in order to keep her child alive and safe. Additional characters come to populate the story as the three teens meet more people along the way including allies, enemies, and everything in between.
But it's to each other that they primarily turn for help and emotional sustenance. "Don't give up, nuna," Yongju protectively says to Jangmi after she attempts suicide feeling hopeless and defeated. "It's a mistake to give up. I promise I'll get us out of here."
Chapters alternate among the stories of the three teens and all end with cliff hangers. Readers may experience some whiplash as they are pulled from plotline to plotline, but the effect is dramatic and definitely keeps the pages turning.
The novel's characters suffer numerous hardships and humiliations and readers will suffer right along with them.
"The woman picked up a bowl of leftovers from the table," relates a desperate and starving Jangmi in one of the chapters she narrates. "My hands were outstretched and waiting when the cold noodles hit my face. 'Not for your kind.... I've had enough of you. Get out before I report you and they haul you back to where you came from."
Lee (who currently lives and works in Seoul) offers a raw take on the China-North Korea conflict, examining what "ally" and "enemy" seem to be in the eyes of the next generation. She also weaves questions of racism, religion, sexism, and sexual orientation throughout, giving the novel a meatier feel.
It's also impossible to read this novel without remembering – even as the teen protagonists push the limits on the unthinkable to do what they need to do to survive – that many real-life refugees have faced similar tough decisions and horrors in order to escape.
"How I Became a North Korean" combines intense and graphic atmospherics with strong narrative threads of romance, friendship, and family values. Yes, the hardships the characters experience are dreary and depressing but Lee's ending allows readers moment of hope.