Memoir, Nonfiction

The Girl With Seven Names: Escape from North Korea, by Hyeonseo Lee


The Girl With Seven Names is truly a fascinating read. With all of the news coverage about North Korea, there are thousands of little details which can only be learned from someone who grew up there. The first half of Ms. Lee’s story is her childhood. She describes the importance of “sonbung,” the caste system under which the culture operates. We learn about the way North Korean schools teach the children, indoctrinating them with a version of history and a filter through which to see the rest of world. Everyone lives in fear. No one knows who to trust. They are prisoners both physically and mentally.

The second half is about her journey leaving the country and her efforts to adjust beyond its borders. It is un…be…lie…vable. (I’m trying very hard not to include any spoilers!)

The concept of “names” is revisited often. Names and identification.

This motivated me to start thinking a lot about the origin of our identities. (See? I’m a wannabe college student.) Where do our identities come from? Our name? Our family? Our social status? Our religious beliefs? Our country? Notice how I’m working from the inside out…. I’ve never read a book where someone was forced to change their name so many times, usually to conceal her identity and try to assimilate in her current surroundings. But not always.

Although I expected to be awestruck at the extreme level of control the Kim Dynasty has over its people, there was something I did not expect. I did not expect to feel the compassion for the culture as much as I did upon completing the book. It’s hard to describe, but there is SO much we take for granted, even as we complain about our own governments in democratic nations. The fact that we CAN complain is something many people cannot even comprehend.

I can’t even imagine living in a country where you have to look over your shoulder every second of every day. Any control of one’s life is through rebellion. What we consider to be illegal and taboo becomes a way of life for many as they try to make a little extra money and maintain a sense of control (and sanity) that the government will not allow. Unfortunately, the consequences of this are negative as well. Not only is everyone trying to outsmart everyone else, but basic concepts like charity and kindness are completely foreign when there’s usually a hidden agenda.

Hyeonseo Lee has an extraordinary amount of “close calls.” But she also experiences what can only be explained as miracles. Those events are hopeful and truly faith-inspiring.

I highly, highly recommend The Girl With Seven Names. It would make a fantastic book club selection. At its core, it will change you, making you more appreciative for the freedoms we enjoy, and it will put your own challenges in a new perspective.

10/10 Stars  (Really, a MUST-read.)

(Here’s my disclaimer for sensitive readers: Although violence is described, it is not disturbingly graphic. The hardest section for me was reading about the years of famine. It’s a short section, but a heart-breaking one.)


Some extra observations about Educated vs. The Girl With Seven Names:

As I read The Girl With Seven Names, bracing myself for the grit, I started to realize why the “tough” scenes didn’t upset me quite as much as when I read Educated. Perhaps I was already inoculated and this is purely my opinion but, based on these two books, I think that growing up in an oppressive family might actually be harder than growing up in an oppressive nation. Make no mistake, BOTH are incredibly difficult and will have life-long effects on their victims. But it’s my belief that you except safety and support from your family. It’s a given (usually). Therefore the pain inflicted is much more personal and wounding because it’s from those you love and want to trust. In Educated I was amazed at how many times the author forgave and boomeranged back to her abusers. It’s because they were her family and she loved them–it was inconceivable to feel anything else.

Patriotism and duty to one’s country is more abstract. The disillusionment Hyeonseo Lee feels in Seven Names as she gets older is more about logic and fear of the outside world than love and a sense of obligation. If you do happen to read both books, you will understand why I’m lumping them together.


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