Beautiful Hero: How We Survived The Khmer Rouge tells how a family of eight with six children (ranging in age from six months to thirteen years old) made it through hell and back again, and narrows survival skills down to the most basic of needs: water and food. There have been other autobiographical accounts of life under the Khmer Rouge; butBeautiful Hero departs from most in its focus on one woman’s courage  (the author’s mother) and how this literally made the difference between life and death for her entire family.

Sagas of family survival are typically thought-provoking, evocative, and compelling. In this case, they also assume a gritty, close examination of the life of a woman whose name translates to ‘beautiful hero’ in Chinese, and whose destiny seemed predetermined: “In retrospect it seems as though her sole purpose was to save us from the hell of the Khmer Rouge.” Few lives can claim to hold such a clear purpose: Meiyeng’s ability to solve problems and survive under impossible circumstances came from a steely fortitude developed in early childhood and fostered by life’s slings and arrows as an adult.

Readers shouldn’t expect just psychological inspection, but should anticipate a read that pulls no punches: Lau’s writing paints vivid pictures as it documents the trials and challenges of staying alive under these conditions: “Today wasn’t the first time I found a clump of cow dung and dead leeches floating in my soup. My stomach soured.” And thus Beautiful Hero becomes not one matriarch’s biography, but a record of the entire family’s experiences and how each family member reacted to and survived these soul-and body-wrenching encounters.

Not everyone emerges a survivor – and those left behind are also left to struggle with their reasons for going on: “Within twenty-four hours, he had lost his entire world. It was in this desolate wilderness he contemplated ending his life. He wanted to hang himself; it would be so easy to end it here, but according to Buddhism, suicide was condemned as an act of cowardice, the most unforgivable of all sins.”

Every American should read this saga, which documents an ultimate journey to America and the costs involved in getting there. It’s a story that is evocative, gripping, and challenging, all at once; and it’s one that leads the reader to better understand the promises and delivery of a kind of freedom that many countries never experience.