Title: Every Falling Star (2016)
Author: Sungju Lee, Susan Elizabeth McClelland
Genre: Young Adult, Non-Fiction
Extent: 336 pages
Release Date: September 13, 2016
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.
Anyone who has seen my non-fiction TTT post knows that I love memoirs and I have a special interest in all things North Korea, so it should be no surprise that the first non-fiction book I review for this blog ends up being a North Korean memoir written specifically for the YA audience!
Now, I’ve read several other books on North Korea – Nothing to Envy, The Girl with Seven Names, Somewhere Inside – but I think this one is a great one to start with, as it has background information those other books may not. I went into these aforementioned books with prior knowledge because I did my own research, but you really don’t need to do any sort of research with this one — just start reading it. 🙂
North Korea is indeed a Hermit Kingdom: a true-to-life dystopian nation.
The blurb of Every Falling Star says that it’s ‘the first book to portray contemporary North Korea to a young audience’, but having read a couple of other similarly themed memoirs before, I have to say that I didn’t specifically get that sense. I believe that YA audiences will enjoy this book, but I also believe that they will enjoy other memoirs just as much. Perhaps it’s the first book to be marketed specifically to a young audience, but otherwise I didn’t notice any real difference between this and other North Korea memoirs written for a presumably adult audience.
Anyway, this memoir is the story of Sungju Lee, who was born into a somewhat well-to-do family but had to leave his life of comfort at the age of 12 years old. The bulk of the story covers the four years he spent on the streets — fending off for himself on the streets, meeting other boys who have similar backgrounds, forming a gang with them, ‘conquering’ other poverty-stricken towns.
This memoir is also about the emotional upheaval Sungju went through ever since he was very little: how his mum pinched him so he would cry when Kim Il-Sung, the ‘Eternal Leader’ passed away and all he felt was emptiness; the confusion when his family was ‘transferred’ to the poorer areas of North Korea; the grief from losing his parents; the loss of his faith in the government…
Morality is a great song a person sings when he or she has never been hungry. You can walk the noble road, Sungju. But if you die because of it, nobody will remember you were a noble person. Just a fool. Our enemy is death now.
Reading this book filled me with dread, though I think it’s important to note that all the North Korean books I’ve read filled me with the same dread. The physical and emotional trials and tribulations that Sungju and his gang went through were so terrifying that even though I’ve read similar stories before, this one also left an impact on me. Personally speaking, though, I do believe that these books will keep leaving an impact on me just because it’s such a horrible way to live and it’s still happening.
I would recommend Every Falling Star to just about everyone — people who have read similar stories before, people who are complete newbies to the situation, people who don’t usually read non-fiction, people who do. Sungju’s story is incredibly mesmerising, incredibly powerful, and incredibly important. The book provides a brief history of North Korea before the memoir actually starts, and there’s a glossary at the end for Korean terms used throughout, so it makes reading it (and educating yourself) very easy. Sungju himself is a success story, but there are countless others in his shoes that never escaped and very likely are still going through the things portrayed in this book.
Our families — our pasts — feel like they never existed. We’re little more than animals now. […] Everyone has abandoned us. Everything has been taken away from us, except hope. You taught me that we can only give hope away. No one can take it. And you also taught me that hope is what makes us human. That, and love.
I highly encourage buying this book as a portion of the proceeds of this book are being donated to the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights to help north Korean refugees in China. Alternatively, you can also read more about the situation and donate directly to the organisation here.
* I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This in no way swayed my opinion of the book.