April 26, 2012


Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. By Blaine Harden. Viking. $26.95.

Summer of ’68: The Season That Changed Baseball, and America, Forever. By Tim Wendel. Da Capo. $25.

      Some stories are almost too painful to tell, which is one reason it is important to tell them.  Blaine Harden, whose credits include PBS’ Frontline, The Economist and The Washington Post, tells one of them in Escape from Camp 14, the story of Shin Dong-Hyuk.  Shin was born in 1982 in one of the camps whose existence North Korea refuses to acknowledge: vast political prison camps where families are confined for crimes, real or imagined, against the state, and where children are born, raised and die.  North Korea is a “basket case state,” Harden writes, but that has scarcely kept it from sealing its borders, developing nuclear weapons and threatening its neighbor to the south – and the peace of the world.  These are large issues, though.  Harden refers to them often, but it is the smaller story of Shin’s life and escape that he tells with chilling detail.  Indeed, pretty much all the details of life in Camp 14 are chilling.  At age 16, after graduating from secondary school, Shin is deemed an adult and ready to be assigned to his lifetime occupation.  It will probably be in the coal mines, where 60% of his class will go and “where accidental death from cave-ins, explosions, and gas poisonings was common.”  But no: in a rare instance of good fortune, Shin is assigned instead to “the ranch,” which is good because “nowhere else in Camp 14 was there so much food to steal.”  Even before getting this assignment, Shin was luckier than some: one of the armed camp guards who served as teachers beat a six-year-old to death with a chalkboard pointer.  Shin’s mother and brother planned to escape from Camp 14; they were caught, his brother shot and his mother hanged.  Then Shin, age 13 at the time, was held and tortured for seven months as guards sought more information on the planned escape.  How did he survive?  “A perverse benefit of birth in the camp was a complete absence of expectations,” writes Harden.  That is certainly believable, but a few things that he writes are harder to accept.  For example, during his torture and interrogation by guards with whom he has collaborated and in a system where he knows he must respond when asked questions by those in authority, Shin is on the verge of death before he reveals that it was he himself who had told the night guard about the family’s escape plans – he had been raised as an informer – and that a classmate could confirm the story.  It is clear why Shin would betray his family, but not why he would allow himself to be tortured to the verge of death (including being roasted over a tub of burning charcoal and developing pus-filled, deeply infected blisters all over his back) before saying words that would exonerate him.  Harden discusses the geopolitical realities of North Korea in the context of the horrors of Shin’s life, pointing out, for example, the contrast between the statements of proud independence of the late “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung and the reality of a country that “even in the best of years…cannot feed itself.”  A few of Harden’s remarks fall victim to the pace of book production compared with that of world events, such as his discussion of North Korea’s plans for world power by 2012 – plans that have obviously not come to fruition.  By and large, though, Harden stays focused on Shin as both a microcosm and a symbol of North Korea, contrasting the world that Shin discovered after successfully running away with the one he had known from birth: “His context had been twenty-three years in an open-air cage run by men who hanged his mother, shot his brother, crippled his father, murdered pregnant women, beat children to death, taught him to betray his family, and tortured him over a fire.”  This is a tale of terror escaped, and of terror remaining for the populace not only of Camp 14 but also of all of North Korea.  It is the story of how one person got out – not without adjustment difficulties, some of them serious – but how many more, nearly all the rest, cannot.  It is a very difficult and unpleasant book to read, and the optimism at its conclusion is understandably muted.  There is uplift here, but even more, there is a sense that the existence of these horrors is almost beyond understanding – and the reader’s utter inability to do anything about them makes the book extremely depressing despite its attempt at a positive conclusion.

      Harden’s straightforward narrative in Escape from Camp 14 makes the story harrowing enough.  Tim Wendel tries to do something more complicated in Summer of ’68, but with considerably less success.  Primarily a baseball writer, Wendel wants in this book to draw parallels between changes in the game and the dislocations in American society in the same year, 1968.  Nothing the United States endured in that turbulent year comes close to what Shin went through – and others still go through – in North Korea, but the fact that the events happened close to home and will still be remembered by at least some readers (or their families) lends Summer of ’68 an immediacy that Escape from Camp 14 lacks.  However, Wendel’s book simply tries too hard to make professional baseball – a big-money sport whose outcomes are entirely irrelevant to the lives of most people, no matter how fanatical they may be as fans – the linchpin of a story about violence and dislocation throughout American society.  It doesn’t work, largely because readers will quickly notice Wendel giving short shrift to sociopolitical matters in his haste to get into details of baseball games and players.  For example, he tries talking about Martin Luther King Jr. as a man who “certainly understood the power of sports” and “was a supporter of boxer Cassius Clay, aka Muhammad Ali.”  But he seems much more interested in detailing how, after King was assassinated, “the 76ers continued their newfound [basketball] dominance, winning a league-best sixty-two games and finishing eight games ahead of Boston in the Eastern Division.”  He writes of the aftermath of the Detroit riots, but sees things through the lens of the fans of baseball’s Tigers: “With the victory, [Denny] McLain became the first American League pitcher to win twenty-six games since Bob Feller and Hal Newhouser in 1946.”  Wendel’s comfort zone is baseball, not societal upheaval.  Fans of the game will enjoy the detailed reporting that Wendel brings to the season: “With Detroit holding an early 2-0 lead, the Tigers’ Dick McAuliffe drew a walk off Washburn to open the top of the third.  Stanley followed with a single and Kaline brought McAuliffe around with another single.  That marked a disappointing end to Washburn’s day as he was replaced by Larry Jaster.  The left-hander had posted a 9-13 record in 1968, with a respectable 3.51 ERA.”  But those same fans will find this at best a (+++) book because of the digressions – they do seem like digressions – into events unrelated to baseball.  Potential readers who are not baseball fans will learn nothing about American history in 1968 that has not been told often, and more effectively, elsewhere, and will give the book no rating at all.  It is really not for them; indeed, it is a little bit difficult to decide just what the target audience for Summer of ’68 really is.

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