Book review: Brother One Cell


Brother One Cell, by Cullen Thomas

Reviewed by Brian Hartenstein

In the early 1990’s, Cullen Thomas was a middle-class American 23 year-old living the post-collegiate dream of international travel: pick-up basketball games inside Beijing’s Forbidden City; fever-stricken hikes up the Rif Mountains in Morocco; riding the rails across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Express; teaching English in the booming economy of South Korea.

What set these adventures apart was one extraordinary mistake: In 1994, while vacationing in the Philippines, he naively mailed himself a package of hashish. When he tried to claim this package on his return to Seoul, his life devolved into a series of grueling interrogations, a hasty and surreal trial, and a three-and-a-half year Korean jail sentence, with no hope of appeal. Brother One Cell, published this month by Viking, is his memoir of that time.

Though incarceration in a foreign jail is any traveler’s worst nightmare, it is only the beginning of Thomas’s story: Devastated, he accepts his punishment as if he were drowning, unsure if he will survive physically or mentally. One of only a handful of foreign inmates, Thomas must confront mob bosses, emotionless guards, human traffickers, jewel smugglers, murderers, and thieves – all along knowing that his family and loved ones are unable to obtain accurate information about his condition or whereabouts. Yet this is not shades of Midnight Express: Thomas is about to be reborn in an unexpected way.

Indeed, Thomas doesn’t spend his time languishing or attempting to escape. Instead he forges lasting friendships with the other inmates, including the engaging Peruvian Jose Luis, who travels the world in business-suits, stealing briefcases from hotels and airports; or the tragic Big Green, a fellow American doing time for murdering his own children. Thomas eventually manages to make personal connections with the guards — learning in a complex way the intricacies of Confucian culture and social mores — and even teaches them English. As he bides his time, awaiting release, he ultimately comes away with invaluable life lessons — paying his debt to that society, and more importantly to himself – en route to becoming a wiser and more grounded adult.

Part travelogue, history lesson, prison commentary, and cautionary tale, Brother One Cell reminds us that travel is often an interior pursuit at heart, one of reflection and personal discovery — and that cultural authenticity can be found in the strangest of places.


Brian Hartenstein taught English in various South Korean cities from 1994 to 1999. He now teaches high school English in Beaverton, Oregon, and he is at work on his first novel, Hart and Seoul.

Recent guest book reviews include Kristin Van Tassel’s review of Code Green and Sara Levine’s review of In the Sierra Madre.

Posted by | Comments (3)  | March 20, 2007
Category: Travel Writing

3 Responses to “Book review: Brother One Cell”

  1. Michael Pugh Says:

    Great review. You should consider posting this text over at Amazon too – there are no reviews there yet, and it may be good cross promotion.

  2. Julia Says:

    Good review H. I’ll be sure to learn from Thomas’s mistakes, as to avoid the murderers and drug dealers during my travels across the world. Although maybe seeking them out would benefit my recognition for cultural authenticity and further appreciation for my uncorrupted Suburban pals.

  3. Josh Says:

    …Yeah, well… he broke the law right? Foreigners must respect their visiting country’s law, and not undermine it.