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Review: First They Killed My Father

June 14, 2012

Luong Ung and her family lived a privileged life in Phnom Penh, Cambodia until the Khmer Rouge overthrew the government and everyone was displaced.  Since her father worked for the government, her family was in particular danger and Luong and her six siblings were warned not to tell of their life in the city.

The family fled to a labor camp and did what they could to survive under horrible conditions – long hours of hard labor with little to no food.  Luong’s mother had hidden valuables in their clothing, but it did them little good outside of the city.  Soldiers came and took Luong’s father and the rest of the family was separated – Luong was sent to a camp and trained to be a child soldier.

The surviving members of the family weren’t reunited until the Khmer Rouge was defeated.

First They Killed My Father, by Luong Ung, is a very emotional memoir – I sobbed at times as I listened to it.  Luong tells her story from the first person point of view in the present tense, which added to the horror for me.  Luong was five years old when the Khmer Rouge overthrew the government so the story is told through the eyes of a child who was confused about what was happening to her.  Used to a life of privilege, Luong readily admits to being whiny and bratty when the ordeal began for her family.

The book doesn’t really get into politics but tells the story on a human level.  I have to admit that I was in college when all of it was taking place and I was more worried about parties and cute boys than about world politics.  While this book didn’t explain the political aspects, it sparked an interest in me.

Even though it was a difficult story to stomach, I thought First They Killed My Father was a fantastic book.  It did have a few faults – for instance, Ung made her father sound perfect – but overall I found it to be engrossing and emotional and I marveled at the resilience of human beings.   I listened to the audio version which is narrated by Tavia Gilbert.  She was the perfect choice for this book – her reading was full of emotion and her pronunciations sounded perfect to me.  The audio version lasts approximately nine and a half hours.

Review copy provided by Tantor Audio.  I am an Indiebound Affiliate.
27 Comments leave one →
  1. June 14, 2012 4:09 am

    I read this book while travelling around Cambodia. It was interesting to read while also being there and meeting the people. I loved both the book and the country.

  2. June 14, 2012 6:51 am

    This would be too too sad for me I think. Thanks for sharing Kathy.

  3. June 14, 2012 7:08 am

    I’m not sure I’d be able to listen to it but I’d read the print version. Thanks for telling us about it.

  4. June 14, 2012 7:31 am

    Thanks for sharing the book. I have put it on my TBR list.
    One of my favorite memoirs also takes place in Cambodia “The Road of Lost Innocence” by Somaly Mam. It’s her story of the sex trafficking industry in Cambodia, how she escaped and the organization she founded to save other little girls. It literally changed the direction of my volunteer work.

  5. sandynawrot permalink
    June 14, 2012 7:40 am

    I really look forward to reading this, especially right after our recent re-watch (re re re watch) of The Killing Fields. What happened over there was horrifying. So much violence.

  6. June 14, 2012 9:06 am

    Books like this — ones that make you marvel at the resilience of the human spirit, as you mention — are so important to read, though often so difficult. Like Mary mentioned above, I think I could handle a print version . . . but an audio might be too much for me. I’m sure I’d be sobbing, too.

  7. June 14, 2012 9:53 am

    I was in Cambodia years ago and it is one of my favorite spots in the world. There were rumors of capturing Pol Pot when I was there and I got out the day before the coup so it was a crazy time. I have read so much on this topic and it was one of my favorite units to teach when I taught World History. I’ll add this one is to my list.

  8. June 14, 2012 10:05 am

    I would echo exactly what Meg said!

  9. June 14, 2012 11:18 am

    My book club read this one awhile back and I agree, it was pretty good and had me close to tears a couple of times.

  10. June 14, 2012 12:27 pm

    Eeee — I’m not sure I could stomach this and yet,these books are so important to read. I hadn’t heard of this one so I appreciate your review!

  11. June 14, 2012 12:57 pm

    I know this book meant a lot to you because you kept referencing in at BEA last week. That says a lot about the power of a story if it affects you like that.

  12. June 14, 2012 1:05 pm

    I’m not sure I would be able to read or listen to this one. It sounds like a very powerful and emotional story.

  13. RebeccaV permalink
    June 14, 2012 1:05 pm

    Thanks for the review Kathy. I’m adding it to my TBR pile, along with Jayme’s recommendation and look forward to adding them to my “international reading bookshelf.” These kinds of reads leave me with so many emotions and usually a knot in my stomach, but they are so important for reminding readers that the geo-political events of the news are about people – it’s not just a game of chess – real people are involved and impacted.

  14. June 14, 2012 1:34 pm

    This is the memoir that interests me….I like learning about the Khmer Rouge and what happened under their reign. Sounds like a moving memoir.

  15. talesofwhimsy permalink
    June 14, 2012 2:55 pm

    Oh wow. It does sounds really powerful and moving.

  16. June 14, 2012 3:09 pm

    Wow…I guess this is a week for tearful books!

  17. June 14, 2012 4:29 pm

    I’m not sure I’m up for this memoir right now, but it does sound interesting. Thank you for such a thoughtful review.

  18. June 14, 2012 5:18 pm

    Oh my goodness this sounds like such a heartwrenching and tragic story. I would definitely have to be in the right mood to read this.

  19. June 14, 2012 6:16 pm

    i love reading memoirs and i’ll have to keep this one in mind because it sounds really good and amazing. but i’ll need to make sure i’m in the mood for it. right now i’m too much in a happy summer mood to read anything this intense.

  20. June 14, 2012 6:40 pm

    What an important book to read, thank you for your awesome review. I know so little about this “conflict”, cute boys were on my mind at this time in history as well. I just thought I would mention, what 5year old girl wouldn’t think her father was perfect.

  21. June 14, 2012 11:26 pm

    Not sure this would be a book I would be able to read right now, but it sounds powerful. I’m going to have to remember this one.

  22. June 15, 2012 6:48 pm

    The change in Luong Ung’s family’s situation fopm a life of privelege to a labor camp must have been horrifying and grueling. Being only 5 it makes sense that Luong whined and complained when things changed since she didn’t understand what was happening and I’m sure it didn’t occur to her tha she’d never see her dad again. Her young age probably accounts for her idealizing her father, too. Maybe it was too painful for her to see her dad any other way when she grew up. Memoirs like this one are difficult to read but I agree with Meg that they’re important to read. I ‘like’ reading them for so many reasons including acknowledging the author’s story and they’re courage to share it.

    Thank you for posting about this book, Kathy. I’d guess hearing the story would be really shocking and painful and I’m sure I’d cry. I might only be up to the print copy. I’ll have to think about this.

  23. June 15, 2012 8:55 pm

    I do not know as much about what truly happened in Cambodia as I feel I should. This is definitely one I’d need to read rather than listen to. The day I found myself with tears streaming down my face when listening to the fiction ‘One Day’ by David Nicholls while driving taught me an important lesson – if I can have that reaction to fiction, listening to a real life tragedy is not something I should be doing while in charge of a vehicle. Great review.

  24. June 15, 2012 9:16 pm

    I’ve been curious about this book, but didn’t know anybody that read it. It’s really exciting that you thought it was fantastic.

  25. June 15, 2012 9:26 pm

    She is a local author and came to our library last month. Seriously, she was 10 minutes away and I couldn’t make it! Grrr. She was in the audience at the Thrity Umrigar signing in January and Thrity made a point of singling her out. Cleveland has a surprising number of really good authors.

  26. Staci@LifeintheThumb permalink
    June 15, 2012 10:21 pm

    Wow! I know next to nothing about this and I think that the audio would be a great way to dive into it. As always, your review was wonderful and I will know to be prepared to have my heart broken!

  27. June 17, 2012 4:28 pm

    I haven’t read too much the Khmer Rouge, but I can imagine how difficult this book would be. Losing your father at such a young age in such a horrible way means I’m not surprised she portrays him as perfect, but I’ll keep that part in mind. I hope to read this one at some point.

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