"Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind" by Loung Ung Coming up Loung Ung The author of "Lucky Child...
“Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind”
by Loung Ung
HarperCollins, 268 pp., $24.95
Readers of Loung Ung’s first book about surviving the Khmer Rouge years in Cambodia, “First They Killed My Father,” may wonder how the sequel could match the intensity and drama of that hellish experience. In “Lucky Child,” her second book, Ung describes resettling with her older brother’s family in bucolic Vermont, and she seems to adjust well to her adopted country, making friends and excelling in school.
Despite appearances, however, Ung is racked by smoldering nightmares and emotions as “the war rages on” in her mind.
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The genocide and subjugation of millions of Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge have been well documented. From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 2 million Cambodians died from execution, starvation or disease. It was one of the great tragedies of the 20th century, yet the scale of the horrors can sometimes render it unimaginable.
The author of “Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with the Sister She Left Behind” will read at
7 p.m. Wednesday at Seattle’s University Book Store (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).
“Lucky Child” is a reminder that each of those terrible losses was suffered individually. Both of Ung’s parents, two sisters and many other relatives died during the Khmer Rouge reign.
“Lucky Child” covers a longer time period than Ung’s first book. Although she writes principally about her experiences as a young refugee, arriving in Vermont at age 10 in 1980, every other chapter tells the story of her beloved older sister, Chou, who remains in Cambodia with other siblings and family members.
The war years are never far from Ung’s mind. The explosions of fireworks at her first Fourth of July in the U.S. trigger old terrors. Her initial experiences with menstruation conjure up bloody and harrowing images of war. She often snaps into rages and contemplates suicide.
While she writes convincingly of terror, death and loss — her account of the death of a young cousin in Cambodia is heartbreaking — even more fresh and perceptive are her observations of everyday life. When she looks in the mirror, she craves to see her family members, dead and alive, but “we do not have a single picture of them and my face is now the only image I have to remember them by.”
She delights in the rivalries and adventures of TV’s “Brady Bunch” siblings, but “sometimes fantasize(s) about beating up the Brady girls. I think of doing this not to hurt them but to save them. In my mind, I worry that if fighting suddenly erupts in America, many of its frail citizens with their weaknesses will not survive.”
Ung can be in-your-face as a writer, a reflection of her feisty personality, but also remarkably restrained when needed. Sister Chou’s story in Cambodia is perfectly understated, allowing the facts of the family’s ordeal to speak for themselves.
The Khmer Rouge devastation has left the people impoverished and near starvation. Most of the educated class has been killed and there are no schools. Although the Vietnamese Army routed and drove away the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Khmer Rouge guerrillas still stage raids on rural villages from jungle hideouts. Ung charts the family’s slow but steady recovery, which parallels the country’s return to relative peace.
Back in the U.S., Ung attends college, bringing honor to her family, but postpones reuniting with family members in Cambodia — as her elder brother, Meng, has done on several occasions. She has repressed painful memories and avoids returning to the scene of the crimes, her homeland. This heightens the drama of her memorable reunion with Chou and family in 1995, after 15 years of separation.
Currently the national spokeswoman for the Campaign for a Landmine Free World, Ung has expelled many of her inner demons through political action and, now, with the writing of this fiercely honest and affecting memoir.
David Takami is the author
of “Divided Destiny: A History
of Japanese Americans in Seattle.”