When Loung Ung said goodbye to her sister Chou and left Cambodia for America, she was leaving someone who was part of herself. Together the girls had survived the years of Pol Pot while both of their parents and two of their sisters had perished. Chou was 12, Loung was 10, but they had already seen more death and horror in five years than most people see in a lifetime. They were, Loung writes, “each other’s best friend, protector, and provider.”
In America with her older brother and his wife, Loung finds herself in a country of "pale strangers." Her bedroom in her new home faces a cemetery and Loung’s first night in America is one filled with visions of corpses and their wandering ghosts. Her dreams are of gunfire and danger, and she only feels safe when she sits and draws in her closet. Fourth of July fireworks bring terror and the memories of bombs. The war rages on in Loung’s mind, and when angered or embarrassed she fights.
Growing into adolescence, Loung worries about clothes, boys, hairstyles, and makeup but is haunted by memories and sadness. “You have to live for them because they died,” she realizes while mourning her dead parents and sisters, and begins to put her memories on paper. Awarded a scholarship, she goes to college, gets a degree, and moves into her own apartment and her own life.
In Cambodia, Chou learns to live without the sister she loves. Given a home by an uncle and his family in a farming village, she fishes, gathers wood for cooking fires, harvests rice, and lives under the threat of raids by the Khmer Rouge, who are no longer in power but still a present danger. Two of her brothers and her grandmother live nearby, and her life contains the underpinnings of Buddhism and Khmer traditions.
Chou’s life is not a rural idyll. A small cousin dies of burns suffered when she falls into a pot of boiling potatoes, and land mines can turn a morning’s walk into a nightmare of death and maimed limbs. Chou tries to return to school but childcare duties get in the way of her education. At 18, she is married to a man chosen by her family and moves with him into a house next door to the one where she had lived with her uncle and aunt.
Packages from America begin to arrive in Chou’s village, sent by Meng, the brother who is Loung’s guardian, and Meng himself comes back to visit, without Loung. Reluctant to return to the country that embodies both love and horror to her, Loung goes back 15 years after her departure for America.
Chou is a successful businesswoman with a happy marriage and three children. Loung is an independent woman who works as a community educator for an abused woman’s shelter. They are two women separated by 15 years and two different worlds, but they are linked by deep and enduring love.
The obvious question is which girl is the lucky child, but the answer is of course that they both are. They have grown into women who know, in the fiber of their beings, that “living life to the fullest involves living it with your family” and they are, while making their homes in two different countries, together at last.
Reviewed by Janet Brown