Every Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea
by Sungju Lee & Susan McClelland
Because I liked the last book I read on North Korea, one of my library co-workers recommended this young adult non-fiction. As much as the subject matter is tragic, it is also fascinating. Even though it’s hard, getting outside of my bubble is so important to me and I think that’s why I enjoy stretching myself to read things beyond “happy fiction” (though we all know I’ll never stop reading that). I enjoyed reading from the viewpoint of a child/adolescent. It was very different: the tone of the book was light and fun, even while it was serious. I really enjoyed Every Falling Star and thought it was very well written.
Sungju Lee is a ten year old boy growing up in Pyongyang, the capitol of North Korea. He has a happy, carefree life, until one day his parents announce that they are moving to the country. There, a confused Sungju learns that it’s not vacation at all and something is very wrong. Later in life he learns that his father fell out of favor with the government. They slowly run out of food and working becomes pointless, so his parents stop and use their time to scavenge for food. Finally, Sungju’s father leaves. He decides to go to China and bring food back, but he never returns. Growing desperate, Sungju’s mother leaves one night to go to his aunt’s and also never returns. Sungju is starving and feeling utterly betrayed. He turns to one of his school friends who helps him and before long they start a gang filled with other boys who have been abandoned. They work together to find food, clothing, and shelter: simply to exist. Spoilers: Sungju spends the next six years struggling for survival: learning how to fight, becoming the strongest gang with a fearsome reputation, losing friends, and growing up. He becomes the leader of an established gang filled with his friends from day one, though he (and his gang members) still yearns for family. One day Sungju runs into his grandfather. He doesn’t believe it at first, but a portrait of his family convinces him that he has in fact found his grandparents. He leaves his gang, promising to visit every week. For a little while things are settled and happy – he even has a bed again. But then he is visited by a messenger with a letter from his father saying that he is in China and has been searching for Sungju all these years and wants him to visit. After agonizing over the decision, Sungju decides to risk it and agrees to journey to China. He crosses the river with his guide and is passed off to another man who gives him a passport and sends him on a plane with instructions to not say a word. Before long, Sungju is in South Korea and after much confusion is reunited with his dad! Sungju had a hard transition into his new life, but is now a successful, educated young man working toward helping create smooth North Korean integration into South Korea. He and his dad are still searching for his mom. It’s sobering to read of parents abandoning their children and children fighting for their existence. And even more so learning about the challenges once they’re able to leave North Korea . . .it is anything but easy. There’s hope in reading Sungju’s story though and I’m grateful he shared it with the world.
Summing it up: this was a challenging, beautiful story and I highly recommend it.
All the best, Abbey