“In the Shadow of the Sun” by Anne Sibley O’Brien has a most unusual setting — North Korea. There aren’t many children’s books that take place in this forbidding, remote and unfriendly country. And in this action-filled novel, O’Brien shows that North Korea is indeed a forbidding and unfriendly country, but also that North Korea is made of people who, like people the world over, can be kind and generous.
Mia Andrews was adopted from South Korea. Her father works getting food to starving people in North Korea. When he plans a trip to North Korea for Mia, her brother Simon, and both parents, it’s billed as a chance to see what he is working for. Or is it?
Mia’s mom has to cancel the trip when a parent gets ill. Simon wants nothing to do with Mia or the trip. And while they have been told about the very strict rules that tourists must follow or risk getting thrown in jail, he doesn’t care. When Mia’s father leaves his room late at night to meet with someone in the hotel lobby, Mia follows. She doesn’t ask what’s going on, but the next day government officials show up to the tour and have gifts for Mia and her brother. They are told not to open them until they get back to America.
Mia decides to peek, and she finds a North Korean cell phone. She starts playing a new game on the phone, and then sees pictures of North Korean people in the work camps. Adults and children starving. Dead babies. Horrible pictures.
In the middle of the tour, the police show up and grab their father. Simon and Mia are off resting, and they see it happen. They think it must have something to do with the phone, but they have a dilemma. They can’t get rid of the phone because if it is found, then they will be jailed as spies. Yet Simon stands out as a tall, blond boy in a country of black-haired people. What can they do?
They run. And most of the book is how Mia and Andrew survive on the lam in a country where they barely speak the language and with no transportation. Mia has her backpack with a dictionary, snacks, a few bottles of water, and a map. Those items prove to be life-savers.
The story is mostly about Mia and her brother and is told from Mia’s point of view. There are snippets, also, of North Korean people and their thoughts and situations. One is a soldier whose comrades were “so malnourished they could barely climb out of their bunks.” Those were sent home to regain their strength. One is a young girl whose father was sent to a “reeducation camp” because his ideas and enthusiasm and popularity had threatened someone with higher rank. Their family was lucky because her father’s moral character meant that officials were reluctant to send the whole family away, and she and her mother got to stay in their village.
Mia comes into her own during the journey, and she and Simon build a stronger relationship. Their strength of character and ingenuity are admirable, and the non-stop action will keep kids turning the pages.
O’Brien also addresses the issue of diversity and cultural problems that might arise when children are adopted internationally. How do those children feel? They may look different than their family, and others may treat them differently. Mia comes to realize that when her mother drops her off at Korean school on weekends, it makes her feel like her family doesn’t want to participate in that part of Mia’s life. And she’s determined to change that. If they make it home alive.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Arthur A. Levine Books, the publisher, for review purposes.