[Audiobook] Review: Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden

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escape from camp 14Title: Escape from Camp 14
Author: Blaine Harden
Genre: Non-fiction
Source: Library (Overdrive)

Length: 5 hours 31 minutes (Unabridged)
Narrated by: Blaine Harden
Published by: Blackstone Audio

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North Korea is isolated, hungry, bankrupt, and belligerent. Its also armed with nuclear weapons. Between 150,000 and 200,000 people are being held in its political prison camps, which have existed twice as long as Stalins Soviet gulags and twelve times as long as the Nazi concentration camps. Very few born and raised in these camps have escapedbut Shin Dong-hyuk did.In Escape from Camp 14, acclaimed journalist Blaine Harden tells the story of Shin Dong-hyuk and, through the lens of Shins life, unlocks the secrets of the worlds most repressive totalitarian state. Shin knew nothing of civilized existence: he saw his mother as a competitor for food, guards raised him to be a snitch, and he witnessed the execution of his family. Through Hardens harrowing narrative of Shins life and remarkable escape, he offers an unequaled inside account of one of the worlds darkest nations and a riveting tale of endurance, courage, and survival.

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(This review originally appeared on my blog Winter Distractions on May 7, 2013)

It’s interesting how certain authors can be the starting point for reading certain genres of books. If I hadn’t been a fan of the author John Green (author of Paper Towns and The Fault in Our Stars), I may not have see his video about the book, Escape from Camp 14, by Blaine Harden. But after seeing John’s video (I’ve embedded it at the end of this review), I knew it was something I had to read.

I know this sounds horrible, but I’m kind of ignorant when it comes to real-world events. I’m not a watcher of the news or a reader of the newspaper — instead, I like to gather my thoughts about what happens in other parts of the world through the literature I read. Reading this book made me realize that I need to invite more non-fiction into my life. Had John Green not talked about this book, I’m doubting that it would have been one I picked up. The subject matter sounded very dark and the book very depressing — not exactly light reading.

Of course, I can’t really sugarcoat it at all — this wasn’t an enjoyable read. The things that the main character go through go from heartbreaking to stomach churning — but it’s such a difficult story because the main character (as John Green says in his video) doesn’t have an ethical center for most of the story. His reason for breaking free of Camp 14 was mostly rooted in hunger.

One of the saddest things about this book (and there are many sad things) is that he was a child OF Camp 14, meaning his mother had him while in the camp. This meant that he had no idea of what life was like OUTSIDE of the camp. Because of this, for the first parts of the book, it made sense for him to “inform” the guards of bad behaviour, or bad thoughts of other people in the camp — even if this meant his own family members. To be able to do this and not have any feelings of love or dedication towards one’s own blood was horrifying. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Certain parts of the story really stood out for me: the little girl who was beaten for stealing kernels of corn, the boy who complained and was forced to stick his tongue to a metal pole until it came off, the fact that if an inmate tries to “escape” the prison through suicide meant that they and at least three generations of ancestors would be punished — and the hunger. To think that the best stories, the ones that kept the main character going, were of FOOD, of having a full stomach because it was something he had never known, was completely heartbreaking.

“I am evolving from being an animal,’ he said. ‘But it is going very, very slowly. Sometime I try to cry and laugh like other people, just to see if it feels like anything. Yet tears don’t come. Laughter doesn’t come.”

This is not an easy book to listen to, but it was very educational and very moving. I couldn’t believe that in the heart of a city that’s bustling about its day like nothing bad could happen lies such a camp — it’s awful to think about. As I finished, I had to tell myself (as I do often) how lucky I am to live in Canada. This book was a real eye opener as to how things go on in one little part of the world.

A note on the audio: The audiobook was unabridged and narrated by the author. Seeing as this was non-fiction, I didn’t expect too much from the narrator, which was a good thing, since it really wasn’t a great narration. The recording itself wasn’t that great, either. From the sounds of it, there were numerous takes of the recording, and the best bits were taken for the final cut, but it was VERY obvious where the changes took place. Had this been a fiction story, I would’ve found it very distracting, but it was still listenable.

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My home is where my books are. - Ellen Thompson

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