“I will kill Pol Pot. I don’t know him, yet I am certain he is the fattest, slimiest snake on earth. I am convinced there is a monster living inside his body.” 

In this passage from “Pa: December 1976,” Luong depicts the brutal dictator in an almost cartoonish way that people of all ages can understand. Historians agree that Pol Pot was a monster who orchestrated the murder of nearly 25 percent of the Cambodian population in just four years. Without access to historical records, Luong defines him as a hideous monster who is controlled by evil. She describes Pol Pot’s monstrosity in a way that is consistent with her age. Unable to fully grasp the idea of enormous moral evil, she explains his behavior by imagining a literal monster inside his body. Although this may be a child’s idea of radical evil, it accurately conveys the unworldly horrors of the killing fields

“Usually on a Thursday I would be in school, but for some reason Pa has kept us all home today. I stop playing when I hear the thunder of engines in the distance. Everyone suddenly stops what they are doing to watch the trucks roar into our city.”

Events that Luong, a child, experiences as surprising are anticipated by the adults in her life, and Luong Ung’s narrative choices foreground this. At the start of “Evacuation: April 1975,” Luong is playing in front of her apartment building, unsure why Pa has kept the children home from school but enjoying the unanticipated freedom. While everyone suddenly stops their actions when they hear the trucks, the child does not understand what the sound portends. Her confusion, heightened by the cheering of the people on the streets, creates a sense of suspense for the reader—although it is obvious that Pa knew precisely what was coming and acted accordingly. By using a child to tell this story, Ung introduces readers, especially those for whom these events are unfamiliar, to the feeling of chaos and uncertainty that Luong increasingly felt.

“We unpack the dried fish and rice and eat in silence. Gone is the air of mystery and excitement; now I am simply afraid.”

In this passage, from the end of “Evacuation: April 1975,” Ung shows the process of gradual realization that her younger self experienced, which her use of the present tense throughout the narrative heightens for the reader. Sheltered by her elder siblings and parents, as well as by her youth, it took time for the extent of the danger threatening them to become apparent to her. It is only as the family eats their meal in silence that dread fully grips her. Yet, at the same time, even those who knew how ruthless the Khmer Rouge were could not have anticipated the full extent of the horrors that would follow. The emphasis on the simple feeling of fear stresses that, no matter how complicated historical events might be, for the people who live through them, they can be absolutely uncomplicated.