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Nonfiction Review: The Girl With Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee

Title: The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korean

AuthorHyeonseo Lee

Year Published: 2015

Category: Adult nonfiction
Pages: 320
Rating: 5 out of 5

Location (my 2021 Google Reading map) North Korea, China, Laos, South Korea, USA (WI)

Summary (from the inside flap of the book): An extraordinary insight into life under one of the world’s most ruthless and secretive dictatorships – and the story of one woman’s terrifying struggle to avoid capture/repatriation and guide her family to freedom.

As a child growing up in North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee was one of millions trapped by a secretive and brutal communist regime. Her home on the border with China gave her some exposure to the world beyond the confines of the Hermit Kingdom and, as the famine of the 1990s struck, she began to wonder, question and to realise that she had been brainwashed her entire life. Given the repression, poverty and starvation she witnessed surely her country could not be, as she had been told “the best on the planet”?

Aged seventeen, she decided to escape North Korea. She could not have imagined that it would be twelve years before she was reunited with her family.

Review: North Korea is a country that I feel like I know a bunch about and nothing about. Does that make sense? I've read quite a few books about it: the nonfiction Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick (4.5 out of 5) and Escape From Camp 14 by Blaine Harden (4 out of 5), the YA fiction Brother's Keeper by Julie Lee (4.5 out of 5), and the graphic novel Pyongyang by Guy Delisle (4 out of 5). All were really interesting and gave different perspectives. This memoir added to my knowledge, giving me an even better understanding of what life in North Korea is like as well as what it is like for those who defect.

The author and her family live in a village next to a river and on the other side of the river is China. I was amazed to learn that numerous North Koreans, including the author's brother, crossed the narrow river on a regular basis to do illegal trading with the Chinese. North Korean border guards look the other way and benefit from bribes.

The story of how the author escaped from North Korea and spent years in China before making her way to South Korea is staggering. The name changes, false IDs, lying, learning new languages and customs, must have been exhausting. And the journey her mother and brother take? It makes her's seem like child's play. I have felt this way about people who try to get into the US from Central America, bu people who immigrate must really feel the treacherous journey and chance at death is better than the life they are leaving.

What was most interesting to me, is that she never lost the love of North Korea. If you have any interest in North Korea or what it's like to escape/defect and make a life in a new country, you'll find this book fascinating.

Challenges for which this counts: 
  • Diversity--East Asian
  • Literary Escapes--Wisconsin, China, Laos

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