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Pol Pot is a name that should stir negative feelings in an American Household the same way Mao Tse-tung or Adolf Hitler usually will. During his regime, he escorted many of Cambodia’s cities to work on farms, forcibly ridding Cambodia of Western evils, returning to an agrarian culture. Teeda Butt Mam is one of the people forced from a Cambodian city, Phnom Penh. Her journey from the city to the fields, then finally to freedom is documented in the book To Destroy You is No Loss: The Odyssey of a Cambodian Family by JoAn D. Criddle. Criddle herself was one of the sponsors that helped Mam and her family to reach the United States. Teeda Butt Mam’s story is one of desperation and loss, but hope manages to shine through in the end. Through artful and realistic depictions of the Pol Pot regime, the book impacts and convincingly engages readers, ultimately stating that human hope shines through the darkest of times.
Hope is a theme within Teeda’s story, and human hope shines through, even if “the future seemed a gaping, black tunnel rushing to swallow me” (Criddle 101). This black tunnel is where hope would most often escape, but black is a theme in and of itself. Teeda, during a propaganda session, thinks, “The blouse only looks black. Under the dye it really is bright red!” (Criddle 100). The dye can be taken as a symbol: the black dye is the bleak situation that blankets their hope, but hope really does shine bright red underneath, even if it’s covered by black dye. Ultimately, the book is a story of the bright red hope shining through the darkest of paints, even if “[they] had to hide [their] humanity, [they still] refused to surrender it to Angka. As long as [they] could laugh, [their] captors had not won” (Criddle 85). This serves as a reaffirmation for human hope, and is the main argument of the author and why the author wrote the story: as a testament to the power of hope and the will to prevail.
As for how the author decides to tell Teeda’s story, it’s by forming an emotional connection with the reader. By describing grotesque scenes, the author can evoke a sensation of disgust, which is necessary for the reader to experience the events as they are happening. For example, take this scene here, “Bodies had been crammed into the well, and more littered the ground. Aghast, then men saw a baby who died as they watched” (Criddle 142). This description here is obviously something that most readers of the novel have never seen before, so the author describes it briefly, but impactfully. Teeda herself was “staggered by the scene. Who were these people? What had been their crime?” (Criddle 143), a reaction many would share if they were to see such a scene themselves. The situation of Cambodia’s population is often described, like when Teeda says that “They were treated like flotsam, serving no practical function in a society that cared only for ‘useful’ objects” (Criddle 111). Pol Pot treated his population as if they weren’t even human. The world didn’t particularly care. After all, “By decree, [they] were living in the midst of a utopia” (Criddle 79). The reader, on the other hand, has a glimpse into the reality of the situation. They see what citizens had to go through.
The book, despite being very emotional, tends to tell, rather than show many scenes. We do get to see many vivid descriptions of scenes, but there is quite a bit of telling, especially as the story is written in past tense. However, it is important to note that Teeda herself was depressed throughout the novel, so the detached narration could be due to that. Despite that, the narrative still manages to be poignant and evoke strong emotions. What To Destroy You is No Loss offers that history books often don’t is a more personal account of what happens. After reading the book, even if the reader is well-versed in Cambodian history, it offers insights into the experiences of the Pol Pot regime unlike any history book. Armed with this information, readers now know the horrors of humanity, but also of the will of others to survive. Together, a story of human acceptance and spirit can be written.
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