First they Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers: What a fiercely powerful, gripping book. Loung Ung makes a bold move by revealing a massive spoiler in the book title, but even with that knowledge, this book remains heart-stopping and horrifically compelling until the very last page. Revealing the brutal Khmer Rouge through the eyes of a middle-class, five-year-old Chinese Cambodian girl from Phnom Penh is the perfect lens to understand the terrible impact of a totalitarian, repressive regime upon generations of Cambodians from 1975-79, during which nearly a quarter of the country’s population perished as a result of execution, torture, and oftentimes, starvation.
Loung Ung is an incredible storyteller, and you as the reader can vividly understand all the emotions and tactile senses she experiences–the overwhelming, scorching heat of the Cambodian sun as she labors in the rice fields, the terror as she awkwardly shoots into the darkness at Vietnamese soldiers (Youns) and phantoms after becoming a child soldier, and of course, the ever-present, terrible aching hurt that comes from a belly that is never full.
I am impressed and moved by her honesty, particularly the way she describes herself, such as the guilt she feels after stealing a bit of the family’s meager share of rice to quell her hunger as she looks on at her utterly malnourished younger sister Geak, as well as the all-consuming rage and desire to kill those responsible for harming her family and shattering her innocence. She makes no effort to sugarcoat her own human failings, which become amplified during the Khmer Rouge regime; her courage is admirable and it helps us understand the unromantic realities of the human condition during starvation and oppression.
Loung Ung occasionally transitions to the point-of-view of her separate family members, as if she were a bird flying high above her family members, witnessing their suffering but completely unable to alter their tragic fate. This may seem jarring at first, but it quickly becomes a powerful rhetorical device to demonstrate a five-year-old’s all-encompassing love for her family and sense of injustice at those who would take them from her.
You may cry, you may be angry, but whatever the case–this book is entirely unforgettable. In both the best and worst sense of the word.
Go buy it today. You won’t regret it.
Check out Loung Ung’s website for more information about this book, and also Lucky Child: a story of Loung’s assimilation to American culture alongside the parallel life of her sister Chou, who endures hardships in Cambodia.