A reviewer of When Broken Glass Floats mentions Chanrithy Him's "nearly photographic memory"—but any three-year-old witness to the horrors she describes could never forget them. Her beautiful prose is far more impressive, though strangely out of place in this harrowing memoir. The story of a childhood spent in the shadow of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, this is one of the best (and most disturbing) personal accounts of survival among holocaust.
Him's family were "imprisoned" under the Khmer Rouge with 1/3 of the population, relocated from their native villages as slaves for the new regime. These escapees of the killing fields feared starvation most, though ubiquitous Death came in many forms. In painful detail we see the pain of separation, the horror of torture, the slow hunger-death experienced by Him and her family.
In the face of extreme oppression and forced estrangement, Him's family maintained a surprising level of filial unity. Forfeiting safety by sneaking out at night, they took scavenged food to family members in other camps, keeping alive their own humanity in a society sunk to brutal savagery by insane violence. The family esprit remains even when Him's loved ones begin to die, though her trust in humanity is nearly smothered by the horror around her.
As a coming of age story, Him's memoir is unsettling. It's incomprehensible that children would be forced to live this way, their childhood replaced with a nightmare most adults can't imagine. Growing up in fear, pain and doubt is no way to reach maturity—but Him survived to womanhood free of resentment, devoted to serving her fellow Cambodians. Today she lives in Eugene, OR, working for the Khmer Adolescent Project and studying post-traumatic stress disorder among Cambodians.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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