“Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea”

I love books about hardship where the central character  prevails. I once recommended “The Worst, Hard Time” about the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression, and my sister-in-law, Jeannie said, “ That was the Worst, Hard, Book!” She did say she enjoyed it and learned a lot. But, the book  was  full of unimaginable hardship and the  forces of nature beyond a person’s control. “Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” can sit on that same shelf, next to “Unbroken“, “Boys in the Boat“, and “Endurance ,” Earnest Shackleton’s incredible voyage to the Antartica.

Is it my easy life? Is it an unbounded admiration for the tenacity and sheer force of will people can exhibit? Is it reading about overcoming the impossible and wrestling with the outcome? If that is your cup of tea, you will love “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.”

I have read other books on North Korea—”Escape From Camp 14“, “The Girl With 7 Names“—but “Nothing to Envy” goes into much more detail about the famine in the 1990’s and the daily grind of working where you are told to work,  listening to hours of indoctrination everyday, feeling trapped, hopeless,  and spied upon and, probably the most terrifying of all, unimaginable shortages of food.

Barbara Demick writes about 6 different North Koreans and their life in North Korea. She writes her nonfiction in a beautiful story form and it flows from one character to the next. The title of the book comes from one scene, where one of the characters is trying to decide whether to defect to South Korea or not. He sees a ragged child of the streets singing a familiar  song dressed in adult cast off clothes. The song would be as familiar as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is to us.

“On one trip in 1998, when the North Korean economy was at its worst, Jun-sang was stuck at a small town in South Hamgyong province where he usually switched from the eastbound trains to the northbound line up the coast. The tracks were flooded and a cold, driving rain drenched the waiting passengers. Jun-sang took what shelter he could find on the platform. As he waited, his attention was drawn to a group of homeless children, the kochebi, who were performing to get money for food. Some of them did magic tricks, some danced. One boy, about seven or eight years old, sang. His tiny body was lost in the folds of an adult-sized factory uniform, but his voice had the resonance of a much older person. He squeezed his eyes shut, mustered all his emotion, and belted out the song, filling the platform with its power.’

Uri Abogi, our father, we have nothing to envy in the world.
Our house is within the embrace of the Workers’ party.
We are all brother and sisters.
Even if a sea of fire comes towards us,
sweet children do not need to be afraid.
Our father is here.
We have nothing to envy.

“Jun-sang knew the song by heart from his childhood, except the lyrics had been updated. In the verse “Our father, Kim Il-sung,” the child had substituted the name of Kim Jong-il. It was beyond reason that this small child should be singing a paean to the father who protected him when his circumstances so clearly belied the song. There he was on the platform, soaking wet, filthy, no doubt hungry.’

“Jun-sang reached into his pocket and gave the boy 10 won, a generous tip for a street performer. It was less an act of charity than gratitude for the education the boy had given him.’

“He would later credit the boy with pushing him over the edge. He know knew for sure that he didn’t believe. It was an enormous moment of self-revelation, like deciding one was an atheist. It made him feel alone. He was different from everybody else. He was suddenly self-conscious, burdened by a secret he had discovered about himself.’

Summertime is reading time! Make sure you and your children have plenty of good reading to expand your world. This book sure expanded mine. Find “Nothing to Envy” at the library, buy it used on Amazon or download it on your Kindle. I learned so much history and how North and South Korea were divided  and the unthinkable suffering that goes on there. Any other suggestions on good summer reads?

2 thoughts on ““Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea”

  1. I am reading ‘My Name is Resolute’ by Nancy Turner this summer. I loved her book ‘These is My Words’. I’m glad you mentioned the Shackleton book and ‘Boys in the Boat.’ All my favorites. Another great book for summer reading is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book ‘Wait Til Next Year’. It is not so much a book about overcoming hardship but very much about ties that bind family and neighborhood through love of baseball, which has been replaced by technology as the national pastime.


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