Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick, Balzer + Bray, New York, 2012, ISBN: 978-0-06-173094-8
Arn Chorn-Pond is an eleven-year-old boy living in a Cambodian village with his aunt, brother, and four sisters. His family is poor, but he is relatively happy listening to American music, selling ice cream and occasionally gambling. When the Khmer Rouge (the name given to the Communist Party in Cambodia) comes to power, his simple life is immediately changed. His family is split up and sent to labor camps, where people are worked to death or killed on site for having “bad character.” “Be like the grass,” his aunt advises before she is taken away. “Bend low, bend low, then bend lower. The wind blow one way, you bow that way. It blow the other way, you do, too. That is the way to survive.”
Arn demonstrates a unique ability to not only survive, but care for people less fortunate than himself. When the party leaders seek workers to play revolutionary songs in a makeshift band, Arn volunteers even though he has never played an instrument before. The risk pays off as Arn quickly learns how to perform and becomes a party favorite. Soon, he is traveling to different labor camps to entertain the masses. The more he plays, the more horrors he witnesses in the Killing Fields, including mass starvation, endless work days, and brutal executions. He soon realizes that his celebrity status in the Khmer Rouge may help him survive, but at too steep a price.
Never Fall Down is a work of fiction based on a true story. In the author’s note at the end, Patricia McCormick acknowledges that she spent countless hours interviewing Arn Chorn-Pond about his experiences in Cambodia, and that when his memory failed, she filled in the gaps with her own creative details. The story, told from the unique and lyrical first person voice of the narrator, feels authentic and offers readers a detailed account of the horrors of one of the worst genocides in the twentieth century. At times, the description of the torture, deprivation, and murder is difficult to read. One wonders how Arn didn’t lose his life or sanity through this experience. He emerges with his humanity intact, with a fierce desire to give back to heal his broken country.
This book is another amazing work by an author who travels to very dark places in order to chronicle the bravery of teens in desperate situations. In Cut, McCormick explored the lives of girls who are institutionalized for cutting themselves. In Sold, she traveled to India to tell the story of young girls sold into prostitution. Now she takes readers into what is possibly the grimmest setting yet: the Killing Fields of Cambodia. This book makes real and unforgettable the horror of the genocide that many people only hear through statistics like 20,000 mass graves and at least 1.7 to 2.5 million deaths. It is a work of great power and humanity.
Information about the author
From the author’s webpage, we learn that “Patricia McCormick is a former journalist, novelist and National Book Award Finalist. “CUT” was her first novel. Published in 1999, it has sold nearly 800,000 copies. Her other books, “SOLD,” “My Brother’s Keeper”, and “Purple Heart” have received numerous awards.
Her new book, “NEVER FALL DOWN,” is based on the true story of an 11-year-old boy who survived the Killing Fields of Cambodia by playing music for the Khmer Rouge. He would later find out that the music was used to cover up the sounds of the killings; as a man, he has worked to revitalize the traditional songs of Cambodia, an art form that would otherwise have been lost in the genocide.
‘The Khmer Rouge used every means possible to break the spirit of their victims,” McCormick says. “But Arn Chorn Pond, an 11-year-old boy, would turn the tables on them. He used music to save his life, to save his soul and to repair the broken heart of his country.”
Young Adult Fiction, History
Reading Level / Interest Age
Grade 9 and up