I have a hard time flat out saying that I liked this book. It was hard to read. I didn't want to think about the atrocities that were committed in Cambodia, nor could I really get a grasp on what it means to only eat dirt soup, to walk for days on end, to live with that much paranoia. Arn's voice is so real. He suffers the same doubts, the same fears, and hopes as we all like to think that we would suffer in similar circumstances.
A while back, I had to watch a video for my diversity in education class called Pass or Fail in Cambodia Town, which was to debunk the myth of the model minority in our uneducated little heads. Now, I was already aware of what ‘model minority’ meant and that the concept of a model minority was damaging, as I do not live in a rabbit hole, but what I wasn’t aware of was exactly what had gone down in Cambodia, and what the repercussions of what had gone down in Cambodia were in the lives of refugees and their children.
What those repercussions were? Appalling, that’s a decent choice of words. Horrific and unbelievable might be a few others. Basically, take a bunch of people with PTSD, drop them in a country where they get little to no support and don’t speak the language, and see how successful they can be. Add to that the fact that one of the main settlement areas for refugees was already rife with gang violence... well, you get the picture.
But I still didn’t know exactly what had happened in Cambodia, which is perhaps a failure in my education - it has simply never come up, which is alarming, given that McCormick’s introduction describes it as “the worst genocide ever inflicted by a country on its own people.” But I didn’t know. And after watching Pass or Fail in Cambodia Town, I felt like I ought to.
So when I saw Never Fall Down, Patricia McCormick’s first-person YA novel depicting the Killing Fields from the perspective of a child who is first a worker, than a musician for the Khmer Rouge, then a child soldier as the situation deteriorates (or perhaps catalyzes), I thought that this was exactly what I needed to read. You read Wikipedia for the bare facts, maybe, or some old news articles, or a brief academic summary. But it’s hard to understand a situation from summaries, from numbers. If you really want to know what happened, you need to read someone’s account of being there.
And actually, McCormick’s novel is heavily based on the life story of Arn Chorn-Pond. I didn’t know this when I started reading - it isn’t mentioned anywhere on the cover of the edition I have, and the introduction page doesn’t explicitly mention that the novel is based on interviews with Arn, his family, and some of the other characters mentioned in the book. So it just didn’t occur to me that what I was reading wasn’t entirely fictionalized until I got to the end and read the Author’s Note. Perhaps that was just as well. Reading this book, it’s easier to imagine what happens as a condensation of many stories and incidents condensed into a single narrative, rather than to think that all this happened to one child - and that this child, he was one of the lucky ones.
So fair warning: if what’s above hasn’t scared you off, please understand that what follows contains descriptions of or references to violence, death, torture, starvation, rape, body horror, and basically everything bad that people can do to one another. I mean, there’s no domestic violence. But that’s because the very concept of ‘domestic’ was destroyed in the first fifty pages.
In the last few decades, Arn’s family has come on hard times. They used to own the local opera house, were rich, envied. These days, he and his five siblings are orphans, and they live with their aunt. Most of the time, there’s almost enough to eat. But Arn’s a happy child, full of curiosity and ingenuity. He peddles ice cream, bilks wealthier neighbors of their cash through gambling, and spends afternoons cheerfully pursuing frogs in the company of his best friend Hong. However, times are again changing for the worse: a new regime is rising, and before long, he finds himself marched out of his city, told that he and his family will only be gone for three days.
This is, perhaps, the most blatant lie that has ever been told, and Arn quickly realizes it as his neighbors drop dead from exhaustion, disease, and starvation around him, as they are executed by the Khmer Rouge for laziness, wealth, education, skills, too pale skin, too slanted eyes. At first, he works a rice paddy with his family, but is soon separated from them and assigned to a work camp comprised largely of children. This is where he makes his credo: never fall down. You fall down, you die.
After a while, he gets a chance: the Khmer Rouge is looking for musicians to play stirring, patriotic songs. He jumps at it, and it proves a decent method of surviving - for a time. But the Khmer Rouge is losing power, and before long, Arn finds himself saddled with a gun and shoved between armies.
One thing I really liked about this book was how quickly the tone changed. At first, it’s really energetic - Arn’s voice, first person and dialectical, rushes along. There’s a lot of sentence length variety, including lists and conversation, some funny commentary. But as the march begins to be deadly, the sentences become short and chopped. I don’t there were ever any exclamation marks, but in the first section, there are dashes, and you can feel his eleven-year-old excitement.
There’s none of that energy left, twenty-five pages in. At that point, Arn’s already been faced with an entire family, children and all, bayonetted and left beside the road. He says, “In just one day a person can get used to seeing dead body.”
And really, that’s the cheerful part. Those people who die in the march, that’s before they’ve faced the complete confusion of living under the Khmer Rouge, where the only reason they ever tell the truth is to make it impossible to know what’s a lie. There are no explanations, only orders and incomprehensible demands. You protest, you die. You fall behind, you die. They don’t like the look of you, you die. But they don’t tell you you’re going to die. They tell you, come help us fix this cart. Give us a hand. And then you go, and you never come back, and the pile of dirt in the forest grows taller, smells worse. So you survive, surrounded by fear, gradually growing weaker and weaker from malnutrition.
And on the subject of tone, something interesting - normally, when you read books about horrifying subjects in the first person, you run the risk of getting trapped in that experience. As an example, recently I tried to read An Untamed State by Roxane Gay, in which a woman is kidnapped for ransom, and when the ransom doesn’t come, is raped and tortured. I don’t know how it ends; I couldn’t finish it. What the woman in the book felt and suffered was unbearable, and it came through very clearly in Gay’s novel. In McCormick’s book, and I don’t know if this was intentional or not, I found myself distanced from what was going on. Perhaps this was because the only way for Arn to cope was to distance himself, to pull himself out of the action - at the end, when he gives a speech about his experiences under the Khmer Rouge, he begins to cry, and it’s the first time he’s cried since the march out of his city. Or perhaps it’s because this book is intended for young adults, and more towards the middle-grade end of the spectrum than the high school upperclassmen, and generally we feel that it is inappropriate for young teenagers to be dropped in the middle of the Killing Fields.
There’s a lot to talk about with this book, like how you think it will end when Arn escapes to Thailand but instead you end up going with him through his guilt and fear as a survivor and the further guilt of being pulled out of the camps as a speaker for his people, but I’ll leave you with one more thing: how the characters negotiate the conflicting demands of humanity and survival. It’s never simple - an act of survival can become an act of humanity, and an act of humanity can become an act of survival. Simply, the demands of survival require deliberate collusion with the Khmer Rouge, everything from betraying one’s fellows to ignoring the dying to looking the other way to shooting people as a child soldier; there’s no way to not lose part of your soul. And at the same time, Arn is a child desperate for safety and affection, who tries with everything he has to keep other children alive a little longer. He is always trying to make up for the choices he makes that save his life at the cost of others. Here are two of the more complex examples of negotiation, though: Arn emotionally blackmails a man into leading the music group, and gains a father figure. He steals rice for the band members so they’ll not starve to death and leave him to be killed for failing to perform, and suffers through repeated rapes by the kitchen girl.
All in all, it was a good read, and remarkably - chill, given the subject matter. I don’t think it would give a child nightmares. And there’s a lot to talk about - I think that people of any age could get hours of discussion from it. Still, for me, there’s something missing - perhaps it’s that distance, that despite the horror and the intensity of the event itself, it’s very difficult to feel any of that on the personal level, and that personal level is why we read novels and personal narratives instead of factual accounts.
tl;dr - Never Fall Down is an interesting, complex narrative about the genocide in Cambodia that provides ample subjects for discussion. TW for graphic violence, death, torture, starvation, rape, body horror.
I think no matter where this ended I would have wanted more of Arn's story, more of how he adjusted and adapted, after the horrific things he went through. This is certainly a story that will stick with me for a while.
McCormick tells the true story of Arn Chorn-Pond, who survived the Cambodian genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, in novel form.
McCormick uses Arn's own speaking style (singular nouns and unmodified verbs) to tell his story in first-person. The horrors that he survives (starvation, forced labor, sexual abuse) are related in a matter-of-fact way that make them no less awful.
The culture clash Arn experiences in the final chapters, after he is brought to the United States, is hard on him in different ways. He has a hard time learning English, and faces racism at school and jealousy in his adopted home.
The tragedy is lightened by occasional moments such as his frank assessment of McDonald's hamburgers, and by the fact that he is still alive and doing well.
I know why she chose to write the book in the voice she did, but to me it felt like it was catering a bit too much to American readers, almost like it was asking me to exoticize and otherize Arn when I wouldn't necessarily do so on my own. But wowwwwww is it moving, and wow, could we do well with a story of his later life and helping to rebuild Cambodian culture.
tl;dr A boy in Cambodia uses quick wits and compassion to survive the Khmer Rouge takeover that destroys the remnants of his family and life in general.
This is raw and dark and really hard to get through at parts because of the extreme violence and starvation and horrible ways the characters are treated. It sucked me in and did not let go until the end.
Toda historia que involucre a niños en la guerra está destinada a romper mi corazón, tan triste y a la vez poderosa. La historia de Arn está llena de horrores, abusos y sufrimiento, pero hubo una fuerza mayor que lo mantuvo vivo, aunque muchas veces quiso morir, para que ahora fuera el hombre que es.
Me acuerdo y lloro de nuevo.
Arn is a Cambodian boy living a simple life until the Khmer Rouge evacuate his village.
This is a novel based on the first-hand accounts of a boy who witnessed the atrocities committed under a Communist regime led by Pol Pot. If you are at all squeamish about murder and death of literally millions, as well as youth military, disease, famine, etc., this is not the book for you.
That's why it was not the book for me. While I can definitely appreciate Patricia McCormick's novel as historically significant and well written, I hated every moment I had to read it. It gave graphic descriptions of violence, illness, death, murder, and many things that made me sick to my stomach.
People should know these atrocities. They should teach about it in school -- the Holocaust is not even close to the only instance of genocide, though it is the only one children learn about.
Just, for me, there was nothing even slightly enjoyable about the reading of this novel.
I also have a hard time reading books in hard dialect. I find it incredibly distracting.