Beautiful Hero by Jennifer Lau comes with the subtitle “How We Survived The Khmer Rouge.” I could not help but compare it to stories of the Nazi Holocaust; many others have made the same comparison, I am in no way original in doing so. This is the story of one family’s successful attempt to escape from a country occupied and ruled by a group of leaders who followed the politics of genocide. Pol Pot was the principal leader but could not exercise complete autocratic power. As recently as last year some of his close advisers were still appearing in court charged with war crimes. Things did not get much better for the Lau family after the 1978 Vietnamese invasion because there were pockets of the country still partially under control of remnants of the Khmer Rouge. We know that Pol Pot died in 1998 under suspicious circumstances. I was living in Cambodia at the time and have yet to see accurate information about the circumstances surrounding his death.
The author was a few months away from her twelfth birthday when she arrived in the United States in 1981 with eight others in her family. Her experiences with the Khmer Rouge began when she was five and lasted four years. She and many members of her family arrived in a Thai refugee camp in 1979, luckily for her and her family, as the border was closed soon after their arrival. Border closings frequently seemed to be on a whim and it was sometimes hard to determine who was responsible. The border could have been closed by Thai, Vietnamese, or Cambodian authorities.
This is a difficult book to read. The lengths people had to go in order to find food and water was almost unbelievable to me. I have lived in the area for decades, to include wartime service, but I remain amazed at what I read. Lau’s family made attempts to escape to Thailand before their successful one in 1979. During one attempt, in an incident I can’t believe I had never heard of, the family crossed to Thailand, was put on one of several sixty passenger buses, and driven to an area in the Dangrek mountains. Almost forty-five thousand refugees over five days were taken to the top of a mountain and were made to jump and slide down steep terrain. When they were reluctant to do so after a period of several hours, Thai soldiers fired into the crowd. The country they were reentering was Cambodia and the border areas were heavily mined. It took the family two weeks to get to the base of the mountain as they proceeded slowly, each foot placed exactly in the place where the previous person walked to avoid detonating mines.
Reading this novel from the beginning, readers will encounter anecdotes that are so life-threatening things could not get worse. And then they do. The Lau family spent three months walking from the base of the mountain to built-up areas near Siem Reap. There they were able to build up a stock of food and water so they could begin their next attempt to cross into Thailand.
There is an Epilogue in which the author details where the family lives presently and what they are doing. It should be eye-opening for immigration reform advocates. The Lau family is contributing. I would be interested to hear what some of them think of the government-by-chaos policy currently in place.
There is also an Author’s note section that readers might be interested in. One of the two purposes stated is to relieve some of the nightmares of her survival ordeal. Seeing so much death and killing between the ages of five and nine may have produced something like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
This is a five-star Amazon read and is available through Kindle Unlimited. This is one of those “iffy” novels that might benefit from a trigger warning about explicitly described physical cruelty. I am not in favor of trigger warnings except for keeping explicit material out of the hands of the very young. This novel does not qualify under my guidelines, but I would not recommend it to my ten-year-old child. Note that Jennifer Lau was almost ten when she crossed into Thailand.
And a final question, who is the Beautiful Hero? Hint: It is not Jennifer Lau. Once you know who the Hero is, pay attention to that person’s behavior as the story develops. It is inspiring.