Synopses & Reviews
From a childhood survivor of Cambodia's brutal Pol Pot regime comes an unforgettable narrative of war crimes and desperate actions, the unnerving strength of a small girl and her family, and their triumph of spirit.
Until the age of five, Lounge Ung lived in Phnom Penh, one of seven children of a high-ranking government official. She was a precocious child who loved the open city markets, fried crickets, chicken fights, and sassing her parents. While her beautiful mother worried that Loung was a troublemaker--that she stomped around like a thirsty cow--her beloved father knew Lounge was a clever girl.
When Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge army stormed into Phnom Penh in April 1975, Ung's family fled their home and moved from village to village to hide their identity, their education, their former life of privilege. Eventually, the family dispersed in order to survive.
Because Lounge was resilient and determined, she was trained as a child soldier in a work camp for orphans, while other siblings were sent to labor camps. As the Vietnamese penetrated Cambodia, destroying the Khmer Rouge, Loung and her surviving siblings were slowly reunited.
Bolstered by the shocking bravery of one brother, the vision of the others--and sustained be her sister's gentle kindness amid brutality--Loung forged on to create for herself a courageous new life.
"This is a harrowing, compelling story. Evoking a child's voice and viewpoint, Ung has written a book filled with vivid and unforgettable details. I lost a night's sleep to this book because I literally could not put it down, and even when I finally did, I lost another night's sleep just from the sheer, echoing power of it." Lucy Grealy, author of Autobiography of a Face
"This book left me gasping for air. Loung Ung plunges her readers into a Kafkaesque world her childhood robbed by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge and forces them to experience the mass murder, starvation and disease that claimed half her beloved family. In the end, the horror of the Cambodian genocide is matched only by the author's indomitable spirit." Iris Chang, author of The Rape of Nanking
"Despite the tragedy all around her, this scrappy kid struggles for life and beats the odds. I thought young Ung's story would make me sad. But this spunky child warrior carried me with her in her courageous quest for life. Reading these pages has strengthened me in my own struggle to disarm the powers of violence in this world." Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, author of Dead Man Walking
"In this gripping narrative Loung Ung describes the unfathomable evil that engulfed Cambodia during her childhood, the courage that enabled her family to survive, and the determination that has made her an eloquent voice for peace and justice in Cambodia. It is a tour de force that strengthens our resolve to prevent and punish crimes against humanity." U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, congressional leader on human rights and a global ban on landmines
Until the age of five, Loung Ung lived in Phnom Penh, one of seven children of a high-ranking government official.She was a precocious child who loved the open city markets, fried crickets, chicken fights, and sassing her parents. When Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge army stormed into Phnom Penh in April 1975, Ung's family was forced to flee their home and hide their previous life of privilege. Eventually, they dispersed in order to survive. Loung was trained as a child soldier in a work camp for orphans while her other siblings were sent to labor camps. Only after the Vietnamese destroyed the Khmer Rouge were Loung and her surviving siblings slowly reunited.
Bolstered by the shocking bravery of one brother and sustained by her sister's gentle kindness amid brutality, Loung forged ahead to create a courageous new life. Harrowing yet hopeful, insightful and compelling, this family's story is truly unforgettable.
About the Author
Loung Ung is a survivor of the brutal Pol Pot regime in Cambodia in the 1970s. She has a bachelor's degree in political science, and is National Spokesperson for "Campaign for a Landmine Free World," a program of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. VVAF founded the International Campaign to Ban Landmines which was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. Ung lectures extensively throughout the United States and appears regularly in the media.
Reading Group Guide
ABOUT THE BOOK
First They Killed My Father is a heart-wrenching and often difficult historical autobiography that recounts the brutality of war with vivid detail. A story of political oppression in Cambodia, it is all the more striking and intense as it is told from the perspective of a child, one who is thrust into situations that she doesn't understand, as she is only five years old when the terror begins. Loung Ung made many difficult journeys during her Cambodian youth, starting with being evacuated from her hometown of Phnom Penh. More meaningful were the journeys of self, which led her from a life as the child of a large and privileged family to that of an orphan and work camp laborer. From the deaths of her parents and sisters, we get a glimpse of the power that family relationships have in our lives. From the loss of economic status, the ways in which our social class can define our days is drawn in sharper relief. From her growing knowledge of the regime that has caused her to suffer, we learn of the vast gulf that often exists between a government's intentions and its actions, between words and deeds.
Ung's story offers an account of the warping effects that war can have on an individual, as well as of the possibility of survival and triumph through seemingly insurmountable adversity. We learn of the daily difficulties that come with an atmosphere of political instability-how neighbors cannot trust one another, how common people become executioners, how a political regime can value the acquisition of weapons before feeding its own people, and the tragedy that necessarily follows. The result is a book of incredible power which demonstrates more than the will to survive of a small child, more than the forces in her life that sustained her through feelings of rage, love, and guilt to a life of activism against global forces of violence. A history of war that may not be on many American's radar screens, Ung's recollections are a chilling testament to what happens when a political movement becomes invulnerable to reason in its quest for power, and also of the ability of the human spirit to endure the harshest conditions.
- What fundamental problems existed in the Khmer Rouge's plan that caused
the destruction of so many lives? Were there any values that the Khmer Rouge
claimed to hold that you share?
- What impact did the narrator's child's voice have on your experience as
a reader? How would you characterize the transformation that takes place in
her narrative voice throughout the story?
- How did it affect your reading of the book that you were aware of Loung's
father's impending death long before her?
- Would you describe Loung as a feminist? How did the experiences of the
Ung family differ during the war because of gender?
- What was your impression of the final separation, both geographic and cultural,
that Loung had with her surviving family? Did you sympathize with her eventual
desire to assimilate into American culture, or had you expected her to be
more aggressive about pursuing her family relationships earlier on?
- Loung saw herself as a "strong" person, as did many other people in the
book, and was eventually drafted into a soldier training camp as a result.
What are the qualities of a survivor? How does one reconcile compassion with
a will to survive? What qualities enabled her gentle sister Chou to survive
- With armed struggle a reality of life for people all over the world both
past and present, how does one draw the line as to which means are ethical
and unethical for coping with it, such as the author's current campaign against
the use of landmines? Are there other tools of war that you believe should
be broadly banned?