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2013 Pulitzers


By Kathy Pillatzki
Assistant Director
Henry County Library System

  For several years, my family hosted an exchange student from South Korea. When she came to live with us, we were all eager to learn about her country and culture, as she was about ours. She patiently answered our many questions, but one topic stumped her altogether: North Korea. Questions about her neighbor to the north were met with a blank look and a puzzled shake of the head.

  I knew North Korea was an isolated, communist country, but that was the first time I realized just how isolated. Distance-wise, it would be like me knowing practically nothing about Tennessee. The relatively small size of the Korean Peninsula and the proximity of the two countries mean nothing. The average South Korean knows no more about North Korea than we do halfway around the world.

  That’s one reason I’m eager to read the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. To set a novel in what is arguably the most secretive nation on earth is a bold move, but Johnson spent three years researching his subject, including a rare visit to North Korea and hours of interviews with North Koreans who escaped to the south.

  The Orphan Master’s Son follows the story of Pak Jun Do, who rises from his childhood in an orphan camp through the ranks of service to the state. He becomes, by turns, a soldier, spy and professional kidnapper before rising high enough to be seen as a rival to the “Beloved Leader,” Kim Jong il. From this treacherous pinnacle, he sees that he must find a way to get himself and his family out of the country to safety.

  Critics agree that Johnson is a masterful storyteller, able to seamlessly blend history, adventure and gritty reality with a love story that conveys the toll of repression on human nature. How does one resolve the inner conflict when told to behave one way, while knowing something entirely different to be true? As one character explains, “Where we are from, stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.”

  Another intriguing Pulitzer winner is The Black Count: Glory, Revolution and Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss, winner of the biography category. Alexandre Dumas’ classic novel was based on the life of his father, who was born to a slave in Haiti and rose to become the first black general in French history. Reiss chronicles his rise and his successful military career until he was shipwrecked, captured and imprisoned by enemy forces.

  Other Pulitzer winners for 2013 include Sharon Olds in the poetry category for Stag’s Leap. Fredrik Logevall was awarded the history prize for Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam. Gilbert King received the general nonfiction Pulitzer for Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America.

  All 2013 Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists are on order for all five Henry County public libraries.



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