This book made me weep.
It is horror.
It is tragedy.
It is loss.
It is brokenness.
And it is one of the most worthwhile books I have read in my entire life.
Before I get into the book itself, I would like to make this note: the title is completely deceptive. Her father doesn’t die til about halfway through the book, nor is he the first family member to die. Not sure why the word “first” is in the title. But the book is no less fantastic for this small oddity. But I digress…
This is the story of a girl and her family during the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia in the 1970s. At the beginning of the book, Loung Ung is five. At its end, she is broken.
There isn’t much I have to say about this book except READ IT FOR YOURSELF. I’ll let Loung’s words speak for her, for the most part. (I apologize for the lack of page numbers; I didn’t write them down as I was going through.)
“Yesterday I was playing hopscotch with my friends. Today we are running from soldiers with guns.”
“I think how the world is still somehow beautiful even when I feel no joy at being alive within it… [on seeing a sunset:] It is unfair of the gods to show us beauty when I am in so much pain and anguish. I want to destroy all beautiful things.”
“My hate empowers and scares me, for with hate in my heart I have no room for sadness. Sadness makes me want to die inside. Sadness makes me want to kill myself to escape the hopelessness of my life. Rage makes me want to survive and live so that I may kill. I feed my rage with bloody images of Pol Pot’s slain body being dragged in the dirt.”
I love how remembering her father gives her hope and strength: “[foster mom] ‘You are so stupid you will amount to nothing… You will never be great. What makes you think you will be great? You are nothing. You are an orphan. You’ll only be somebody if you become a hooker!’
…as I sit in the woods in a corner of the world, hiding from a war I know little about, I hear Pa’s voice. ‘No one knows how precious you are. You are a diamond in the rough and with a little polishing, you will shine.’ …The mother may not give me the love I crave, but I know what it feels like to be loved. Pa loved me and believed in me. With that little reminder from him, I know the foster mother is wrong about me. I do possess the one thing I need to make something of myself one day: I have everything my Pa gave me.”
Near the end, she writes, “Now my body is accustomed to the extreme environment and weather, but my heart has never come to terms with the absence of those we have lost.”
And her story now: “As I tell people about genocide, I get the opportunity to redeem myself. I’ve had the chance to do something that’s worth my being alive. It’s empowering; it feels right. The more I tell people, the less the nightmares haunt me. The more people listen to me, the less I hate.”
However, the single most impactful scene, to me, is when a group of the refugees capture a Khmer Rouge soldier. Excerpts:
“Rage heats up my body; seeing only one of them killed is not enough!
“…People talk loudly about the best way to kill him. They argue about how to make the execution as drawn out and painful as possible.
[The soldier is attacked. Not shared for graphic content.]
“…I almost feel no pity for him. But it is too late to let him go, it is too late to go back. It is too late for my parents and my country.
“Finally the women [who killed him] stand still. Their weapons drip with blood as they walk away. When they turn around, I see that they look like death themselves.
“One by one, people return to their homes, leaving me standing there alone, staring at the corpse. My mind plays back images of my parents’ and sister’s murders. Again, my heart tears open as I stand there and wonder how they died. Quickly, I push the sadness away. The slumped-over corpse reminds me of [friend] in her mother’s arms. [Friend’s] head bled in much the same way. His death will not bring any of them back.”
Stop a moment. Read those last two quotes again.
This is so powerful. Murder – even from revenge – transfers the look of death to the murderers themselves. Vengeance killings do not bring back those we have lost. Killing out of revenge is still killing. It doesn’t bring life back. This is retributive justice, but it is not restorative justice. It does not get us anywhere.
It reminds me of the priest’s advice to Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo right before Dantès breaks out of prison: “Do not [in revenge] commit the crime for which you now serve the sentence.”
It is hard for me to imagine famine, labor camps that push children to death, and seeing my family killed in front of my eyes. But somehow, I needed to read about Loung Ung’s experience.