Review: BROTHER’S KEEPER by Julie Lee



  • ISBN-10 : 0823444945
  • ISBN-13 : 978-0823444946
  • Holiday House, 2020
  • Starred reviews: Kirkus, School Library Journal, Publishers’ Weekly, Booklist
  • Junior Library Guild Selection
  • Jane Addams Peace Award Finalist

“The martial and political conflict in 1950 Korea is catalyst and backdrop, and the story of the Pak children’s treacherous flight is compelling. The underlying domestic struggle between Sora and her parents carries equal weight, though.” —The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

The various accolades listed above provide plenty of motivation for reading BROTHER’S KEEPER by Julie Lee. Even so, I’ll add my voice to their praise, in hopes that many more will read this remarkable story.  The subject of the Korean War has had far too many untold stories, but that is especially true from the perspective of Korean families from the North who made their way, against enormous odds, to the southern peninsula in order to reach freedom and basic survival.

I was an avid fan of M*A*S*H- the television series. I read and heard that their technical consultants were sticklers for historic accuracy, but my assumption was that this reflected the expertise of medical and military advisors. In other words, Western points of view. I vividly recall several episodes in which refugees from northern territories and also North Korea were streaming south in the midst of the storyline. Those scenes came to mind while reading a few scenes in this novel. Over the long run of the series, a few more storylines and perspectives of local Koreans came into play, but things were distinctly focused on an American telling. After all, this was a series about American medical services during the Korean “policing action”, the war that was never declared, and so has never actually ended.

With that said, I began reading BROTHER’S KEEPER eagerly, knowing that I’d have much to learn and hopeful that the storytelling would be compelling. I was not disappointed. The story involves the early days of Allied (American) involvement with Communist North Korea (1950-51). Families fearing increasing repression and longing for freedom faced only one alternative- an escape as refugees to the southern half of the Korean Peninsula. The risks involved were immeasurable, especially when the family included three children.

The complexity of the times, places, Korean names and occasional vocabulary, and political circumstances are made navigable by thoughtful design and formatting choices. Chapter labels are dated, a past tense voice feels urgently in-the-moment, and interspersed passages in italic font allow for flashbacks and recollections. These passages were not overdone or utilized as “cheap tricks” for information dumps or shortcuts in the story line. Rather, they served to expand and deepen the reader’s awareness of the conflicted feelings Sora (or noona, older sister of a male person) has for her siblings, culture, education, and especially for her mother. Each step of her threatening and harrowing physical journey is hindered and tangled within the strands of her inner journey. Compounding these specific and societal conflicts are the universal sibling and age-appropriate emotional reactions that young readers will recognize in themselves.

It is an enormous accomplishment when a novel for middle grade readers manages to balance a high-stakes, action-packed plot with an intimate emotional experience. This is even more true when the physical obstacles eventually resolve while the underlying story continues to unfold. Readers gradually recognize what has been at stake all along, discovering a framework through which to view  their own external life experiences as tools for exploring the landscape of their emotions and relationships.

There are dangers, action-packed scenes, and nail-biting conflict aplenty for readers whose tastes lean that way, but there are also political and social issues for readers who take a  more analytic approach to historical novels. The fact that this fictional story was inspired by the author’s mother makes each detail even more heart-pounding. The notes, glossary, and historical event synopses in the back pages add welcome authenticity to a story that can seem nearly impossible to believe.

As an author, I have three goals for success when anyone asks  me, “How are your books doing?”

  • Is anyone reading it (them)?
  • Does the reader feel eager to talk to someone about the book(s)?
  • Has the reader learned anything new, without feeling they were being “taught”?

I don’t know what Julie Lee’s goals are for this book, but as I read BROTHER’S KEEPER i could answer all of the above with YES, YES, and YES.

And, while we’re on the subject of North Korea…

A few years ago I read a contemporary novel set in North Korea for late middle-graders and teens, IN THE SHADOW OF THE SUN, by Anne Sibley OBrien.

What a rare topic, incorporating a wide range of important issues, complex characters, a heart-pounding plot, and intense family relationships. O’Brien’s personal history, professional focus, and obvious research combine to create a novel unlike most others. She offers a well-written and page-turning suspense-thriller-entertainment novel for early teens. O’Brien also writes well enough to  allow central character, Mia, to reflect on her cultural and familial identities while learning about harsh realities in modern day North Korea, all without slowing the pace by a single beat.

That central character and voice, Mia, rings true throughout her journey. She transforms, credibly,  from a tightly-packed, self-restrained early teen to discovering, by necessity, that she is more capable, creative, and direct than she would ever have  imagined she could be.
There is no separating this story from the reality of contemporary North Korea, and there shouldn’t be. This novel turns a “trope” or political talking point into a complex reality filled with humanity, intrigue, and mystery.


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