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Small Heroes

When Broken Glass Floats by Chanrithy Him
First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung

Two new books about Cambodia hold tales of sadness, bravery, and endurance that merit comparison with the best books ever written about war and revolution.

On the surface, the two books sound similar: both authors were young girls when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975. Both were separated from their families and orphaned, and both endured the starvation and slavery that characterized life during the Pol Pot time. At a deeper level, however, the books are very different, and their titles symbolize the difference. Chanrithy Him's When Broken Glass Floats is lyrical and haunting, and Loung Ung's First They Killed My Father is stark and riveting. Both books are outstanding.

Book Cover: First They Killed My Father Loung Ung was five years old when the revolutionaries seized Phnom Penh in April 1975. Her father, a military policeman, had always pampered his beloved young daughter. When the Khmer Rouge order the complete evacuation of all cities, Ung begins to struggle with a world that is suddenly beyond comprehension. Her parents conceal their past, carefully instructing their children to avoid discussion of their lives in Phnom Penh. They live in constant fear of discovery: if the Khmer Rouge learn of her father's identity, he will be killed. The hallmarks of the new regime emerge: violence, hunger, and suffering.

With poignant, direct prose, Ung describes a litany of horrors, vividly recounting the hunger that is her constant companion, the constant threat of violence, the deep exhaustion of unending toil. Despite their suffering, the family survives - until one day when two Khmer Rouge soldiers arrive at their house and escort Loung's father away. He does not return.

After their father's death, their mother, determined to save her children, makes decision of unimaginable pain: she forces her three oldest children out of the house. "If we stay together, we will die together," she tells her children. She reasons that separation will give them the greatest chance for survival. "[I]f they cannot find us, they cannot kill us." When eight-year old Loung begs to stay with her mother, her mother pushes her away. "I don't want you here! You are too much work for me! I want you to leave!" Crying with sadness and anger, the child walks down a gravel path, away from her mother, but toward survival.

First They Killed My Father is a painful, gripping memoir, an unrelenting tale of sorrow. It is difficult to read, and impossible to stop reading.

In the events it recounts, When Broken Glass Floats is every bit as sad as Ung's book. It vividly documents the lives crushed by what the Khmer Rouge called kang prawattasas, "the wheel of history." But within the agony, there are tales of heroism and compassion.

Book Cover: When Broken Glass Floats Growing up in Takeo, Him gets a glimpse of the war at an early age: in 1970, as the war in Vietnam spills across the border, her family flees to Phnom Penh. When they return, their house has been destroyed. It is only the beginning. They are in Phnom Penh when the city falls, and as they join the forced evacuation of the city, the cruelty of the Khmer Rouge and the harshness of the new regime is on display everywhere.

Him's world is a savage realm where children, reduced to brutal slavery, struggle alone for their very lives. Day after day after day, there is nothing but work, sickness, and death. Her family is torn apart, deliberately separated to weaken their allegiance to each other. Her father is executed, yet they dare not mourn. In simple, eloquent prose, Him describes the slender hopes that sustain her in a bleak existence: "Just the hope of seeing Mak [mother] creates a horizon for me in a world with no horizons." But kang prawattasas is relentless. Weakened by starvation and malnutrition, Him's mother and five of Him's siblings die of illness.

But there are moments of kindness and hope. A man working for the Khmer Rouge risks certain punishment to give food to Chanrithy and her sister; another Khmer Rouge, in a rare show of compassion, miraculously finds penicillin to treat an infection in Him's leg. "For the first time, I wonder if some Khmer Rouge are actually nice, quietly hiding among the ranks of the cruel."

And then there is Cheng. Only a child, like Him, she is one of the "new people" - the former city dwellers who bore the brunt of Khmer Rouge hatred. She befriends Him on a forced march to a labor camp, sharing precious food and equally precious companionship. Later, when they are caught scavenging for food, they are tortured together. Sensing their fate if they remain at the camp, Cheng puts forth a bold plan: they must escape.

Reading Him's book, it is hard to imagine that any human being could endure such hardship. They are mere children, yet they possess the courage of heroes.

Today, Chanrithy Him works in Oregon, where she studies the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Her job often requires her to interview the victims of the Cambodian genocide. She queries a woman about her experiences: "Did you ever see corpses during this time? Did you ever witness the executions of family members?" The woman breaks down and begins to cry, then regains her composure. "She apologizes for interrupting the interview, a mark of Cambodian courtesy that survived the years of brutality. I am always amazed that some bit of humanity outlived Angka and is more powerful than the wheel of history."

More powerful than the wheel of history, both First They Killed My Father and When Broken Glass Floats are moving tributes to those who survived, and eloquent eulogies for those who did not.

First They Killed My Father is published by Harper Collins.
When Broken Glass Floats is published by W.W. Norton.

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