Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick
Arn Chorn-Pond was just a child when the Khmer Rouge came to his village in Cambodia and forced the people out of their homes and into the countryside. One moment he was dancing outside the theatre with his brother, hustling for change, and the next he was torn from his family and forced to labor in the rice fields. He makes a promise to himself that he will never fall down. Because if he does, the soldiers will kill him. Instead, he chooses survival by any means necessary, volunteering to play in a band, even though he's never played a note in his life, assisting with executions and cozying up to individuals with power. He is not always proud of his actions, but he does what he needs to do to survive and tries to help others when he can. Then he is handed a gun and forced to become a soldier himself.
Arn Chorn-Pond is a real person. He is alive today because of willingness to do whatever it took to survive. Once freed from the control of the Khmer Rouge he began to work for peace in Cambodia and to spread public awareness of their atrocities. Patricia McCormick spent many hours over the course of several years interviewing him and then molding his story into a work of historical fiction. One risk McCormick took in telling Arn's story is that she used his voice, broken English and all. At first, the choppiness and improper grammar made it difficult to read. I forced myself to keep reading, and the words turned into a voice that I heard as I read. It almost felt like he was sitting before me, telling me his story. I wondered if McCormick would be able to maintain the voice, or if there would be parts in the middle where it would vanish, in favor of a more easily comprehensible language. It never wavered. More impressive, perhaps, was the care with which she handled violent scenes. When awful, grotesque things happened in the story (which was often) McCormick described the brutality of the scene and conveyed without going into gritty detail. Her intent was to educate the reader about about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, not to sensationalize their acts of violence.
At the end of the book, both Arn Chorn-Pond and Patricia McCormick offer acknowledgements. Having little prior knowledge about the Khmer Rouge or Chorn-Pond I was actually shocked to find out that he was an actual person. My jaw literally dropped and I read his acknowledgements in awe of his struggle and his will to survive. Learning that he was real made the story more powerful and the actions of the Khmer Rouge that much more detestable. I wouldn't be surprised to see this book added to the 8th or 9th grade curriculum over the course of the next few years.
Never Fall Down is one of five finalists for the 2012 National Book Award for Young People's Literature.
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