Tuesday, September 9, 2014

O.o.O.C.: "First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers" by Loung Ung

Out of Orbit Critique #1

This will be my first Out of Orbit Critique: basically about once a month I'll take a book I that doesn't fall under Victorian Soul (Book) Critiques genres (like nonfiction biographies or contemporary fiction) and review it. This was inspired by my favorite radio station back in Billings, MT: The Planet 106.7, which would occasionally do a feature called Out of Orbit, playing a song that you wouldn't normally hear on the radio anymore. Although this is a book critique blog and not a radio station, I give them credit for inspiring me to shake it up.

Cover From Goodreads
Alternate Title (I Made Up): The Actual Hunger Games

The first thing to note is that this is a memoir of a girl growing up (from when she was 5-9 years old) under extreme conditions. The author wrote it in present tense after realizing that when she wrote it in past tense it lost much of its impact, and also from the point-of-view of a child (i.e. herself) because it was how she experienced it.

I'd never heard of the Cambodian Genocide before reading this book- in school we were taught bits and pieces of post 1970 history, but not a lot. I had heard of Pol Pot, but I didn't realize the extent of the Cambodian genocide, which has an estimated quarter of the population of Cambodia dying from 1974-1979, and left behind about 20,000 mass graves.

The Plot:
Loung Ung and her family lead a relatively privileged life in Phnom Penh, until April 17th, 1975, when the Khmer Rouge evacuate the city because of fears the U.S. would bomb it. Traveling to her uncle's village with what they were able to grab from their apartment, Loung hopes they will soon be able to return to Phnom Penh and life as they knew it, but will they?

The reason I redubbed this as The Actual Hunger Games is Loung spends more time hungry in this book than Katniss ever did- and her family grows very sick from the hunger (i.e. they can't work, function, or shoot arrows like a boss). This book has a lot of heavy topics, and once I reached the family photos section (about 45% through) I began crying in earnest. Although I felt some of the book would have benefitted from an adult's perspective, to hear a child talk about hunger, anger, and being taught to kill Vietnamese soldiers is so much more chilling.

In the course of my research for this critique, I came across an article that attempts to poke holes in Loung Ung's story. They think that because she wrote a book about it, she has to be an expert on everything Cambodian (what foods were available in Phnom Penh and other trivial things)- when in fact she has spent more of her life in the U.S.. In the grand scheme of things, I don't care about detail in memoirs- I read this book to hear her story, not the history and precise details of Cambodia during the 1970s. They also felt Loung was racist towards the Khmer people due to her hatred for the Khmer Rouge (the bad guys who carried out the genocide). I didn't feel that way, and so I'm unwilling to even link to the article- just note that some people didn't like the book as well as I do.

First They Killed My Father is a compelling memoir told from a child's point of view. While some details of Loung Ung's past may have been muddled by time, the main story rings true- and that's all that matters to me. I recommend this to anyone willing to cry during the course of reading a heartbreaking memoir about survival.

Rating: 4 of 5 Stars for a sadly true story.

Content: Ages 14+ because despite the content it needs to be read (instances of sexual assault, child soldier training, violence, brutality, discrimination, and starvation).

Page Count: 238 pages in the Kindle edition


  1. Out of orbit sounds like a wonderful idea! Partially because I know my own book interests aren't the most popular lol. I'm actually much more I interested in reading this now after the review, it's been sitting on my shelf for ages. I picked it up when I was looking for and snatching up any history and memoir books I could. Great review!

    1. It's so interesting to look at which of my posts/reviews are most popular by the end of the month: oftentimes the posts I worked hardest on or thought were amazing are simply ignored, and the ones I felt didn't do justice to the book or I was uninspired writing about are viewed the most. So, out of orbit will be an experiment- I wanted to review some other books I wanted to share my thoughts on (i.e. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) that wouldn't quite fit what I have going on, without disregarding my main blog genres. I'm curious to see how it'll work.
      I'm glad you liked my review- this book is so emotionally taxing, but definitely worth reading.
      Thanks for commenting, Jamie!
      ~Litha Nelle


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