Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

nothing-to-envyLife in North Korea may be more unusual than that in any country in the world. That’s the conclusion I can’t help but draw while reading Barbara Demick’s extraordinary book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. Demick interviewed six defectors to get a look at a country to which few outsiders have access. The result is astonishing.

What’s so different for North Koreans? Start with a life ever-subject to the cult of personality built by Kim Il-sung and perpetuated by his son Kim Jong-il and a political caste system that traps people in a status almost entirely decided by their parents’ ethnic and political history, with nowhere to go but down. A stray comment that spills off the tongue can result in a lost job or a life in the mines or labor camps. And there’s almost always someone on hand to report that stray comment: surveillance networks extend into every housing unit, every neighborhood and workplace.

Factor in an almost complete lack of consumer goods, not just the luxuries that we think of as commodities in most capitalist countries, but simple clothes, staple foods, or writing paper and pens. Doctors must rely almost entirely on herbal medicines they concoct themselves. Electricity and running water are unavailable more often than they are working, particularly outside the capital of Pyongyang, and a broken window most often cannot be replaced. Since the early 1990s, when aid from other communist countries ended, millions have likely died of famine and starvation. Jobs have gone unpaid for years. Children are required to bring even firewood to school, although many become too weak to carry it. Almost every resource in the country goes to maintaining the leadership, the military, and the nuclear program with which they keep the rest of the world at bay.

It seems hard to believe that as recently as the 1970s, North Korea was more prosperous than South Korea, but years of practicing a line of communism so hard that it makes Mao and the Soviets look like social democrats have taken a toll. Demick relates all of this history without ever becoming pedantic or dull. It’s revealed through part of the life stories of ordinary citizens. Although the book clearly reflects extensive research, she keeps herself almost entirely out of the narrative.

My colleague Andrew Smith selected this book for a pair of groups that normally read fiction. For the most parts, they’ve turned their noses up at past forays into nonfiction, but they liked this book, which depicts people with whom they empathize, but in a society utterly unlike their own. If your readers would like to understand the motivating forces behind stories they see in the news or would enjoy learning about the courage that it takes to simply keep going in the darkest of circumstances, then by all means give Nothing to Envy a try.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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