“I want people to know the truth about what happened,” Nawuth Keat told Martha E. Kendall, who was then his World Literature instructor at San Jose City College in northern California. A quiet young man with limited English proficiency, Nawuth surprised his fellow students on the very last day of class with his story. His teacher realized the power of his memories, and put words to his family’s tragedies, his desperate survival, and his odyssey to the other side of the world. “Here is Nawuth’s truth,” she writes in the preface.
When the Khmer Rouge savaged Cambodia, “Mop” (Nawuth’s childhood family nickname) was just 9. He witnessed the massacre of his mother, grandmother, aunt, uncle, baby sister, and babysitter. He miraculously survived three gunshot wounds on that “terrible night in 1973.” His remaining six siblings and their father were scattered, and suffered horribly through the brutal Khmer occupation; some survived, some did not.
Starvation proved to be the most excruciating, neverending challenge for all: Nawuth dreams first of having three meals a day, then just one meal a day, and then any food at all. “All we had was love for our family, and that’s what made us want to survive,” he recalls.
Written for a middle-grade audience, Alive is understandably not as graphic as bestselling memoir First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung. But be prepared: Alive‘s impact is just as wrenching. Paired together, the two titles would do well for a parent/child discussion, and is certainly appropriate for any classroom. This unfiltered look at Nawuth’s childhood robbed by war’s death and destruction provides early training that ‘collateral damage’ is simply too high a price to ever pay, that war’s prevention is clearly the better investment.
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult