Yeonmi was born in Hyesan, a city in North Korea, next to the border with China. Together with her parents and older sister, they tried every possible way to survive in the ‘Hermit Kingdom’. When she reached 13, their situation went from bad to desperate. Her sister decided to escape to China to have a better life. After some time, Yeonmi and her mother did the same, not knowing that women were being sold as brides on the other side of the border. Once in China, Yeonmi and her mother had to again fight for survival; this time, they were fighting against groups who drugged women and passed them around to other men. Both realizing they were still in hell, they chose to cross the freezing Gobi desert to reach Mongolia, towards freedom in South Korea.
Yeonmi Park started working on this book when she was still speaking in broken English. This was appropriately captured by using simple words in the book, which makes it an easy read. Nevertheless, I had to pause every now and then because the images they evoked were still effectively disturbing–such as the mention of a dead man lying on the side of the river, too weak to reach the river for a drink. Yeonmi and her sister were locked inside their house for days with nothing to eat, hanging on to hope that their mother will come home. These are powerful scenes in the book that will stay with any reader for a long time.
Like any other memoir, though, there are some controversies as well. Other defectors from North Korea are claiming that Yeonmi lied and omitted some facts from her experiences in China. In spite of this, her story has managed to highlight two major issues: the oppression that is happening inside North Korea and human trafficking. However, if I am to compare In Order to Live with other books tackling the same issues, – such as Escape from Camp 14 (check out our review) for oppression inside North Korea and The Lost of Innocence for human trafficking – Yeonmi Park has recounted these issues in a lighter way. This does not make In Order to Live inferior in any way. If anything, it makes it more remarkable because she was, technically, still a child when she went through these harrowing experiences.
Any reader who likes stories of hope, perseverance and strength of human spirit will surely cherish Yeonmi’s story.
Neriza Billi works a regular 9-to-5 job in Stockholm where she resides with her husband. In addition to reading, she enjoys travelling and curling up with a glass of good wine.
Review copy was provided by Penguin Press. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.