Yongju is an accomplished student from one of North Korea's most prominent families. Jangmi, on the other hand, has had to fend for herself since childhood, most recently by smuggling goods across the border.families. Danny is a Chinese-American teenager of Korean descent whose parents left China when he was nine; his quirks and precocious intelligence have long marked him as an outcast among his peers, and he yearns for the China of his youth.
These three disparate lives converge when each of them travels to the region where China borders North Korea--Danny to visit his mother, who is working as a missionary there; Yongju to escape persecution after his father is killed at the hands of the Dear Leader himself; and Jangmi to protect her unborn child.
As they struggle to survive in a place where danger seems to close in on all sides, in the form of government informants, husbands, thieves, abductors, and even missionaries, they come to form a kind of adopted family.
The novel transports the reader to one of the most complex and threatening environments in the world, and explores how humanity persists even in the most dire of circumstances.
"On nights like this, it feels as if we're the only people remaining on the planet," says Yongju, a young man whose family had been Pyongyang aristocracy until the Dear Leader decided otherwise and shot his father. But Jangmi, who crossed the border because she was pregnant with the baby of a comrade who was married to someone else, replies with a clarification: "No... it's more as if the entire world is elsewhere and we've been forced out." The two have recently met in a cave in China. And although they've made it that far, Jangmi and Yongju still have a long way to go. Lee (Drifting House) structures her novel across four successive parts, "Crossing," "The Border," "Safe," and "Freedom," as it follows the two, along with Danny, a Christian Korean-American teenager from Fresno, through each stage of their escapes. Though the three characters all start from very different places, geographically, economically, and emotionally, they meet in the cave. From there, each will then make his or her way across another border to South Korea, again finding themselves together in the home of a Christian minister with more nefarious inclinations than his generosity initially indicates. Their haunting stories reveal the darkness of life in North Korea as well as the enormous risk of escape, resulting in a vivid and harrowing read.