Thursday, February 14, 2013

Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick

Arn is young when the Khmer Rouge comes to power in Cambodia.  Along with his family and all the residents of his city, he is forced out to the countryside, separated from everyone he knows, and sent to work in the rice fields.  All around him Arn watches as people begin to starve.  When the children are asked if anyone knows how to play an instrument, Arn says he can, even though he's never played anything before.  Perhaps this will be they way that he can survive.

I'd never read any fiction about Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge, and now within a year I've read two excellent ones.  Much like In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner, Never Fall Down is a novel that is based on a true story.  Patricia McCormick worked closely with Arn Chorn-Pond to tell his story.  But just as Ratner felt, Chorn-Pond thought there were too many holes in his childhood memories to write a memoir.

Arn is not well off when the story begins, he and his brother beg for food on the street, but they used to be rich.  Arn has to make sure that no one ever finds this out, because rich people, academics, royals, government soldiers, all were systematically killed by the Khmer Rouge.

Arn's survival instincts were strong.  He was going to do whatever he needed to do in order to get by.  Children are starving to death around him, and Arn witnesses, again and again, people being killed for seemingly no reason.  He's so hungry he's eating bugs and dirt.  Volunteering to be part of the Khmer Rouge band was a crap shoot.  Sometimes the soldiers will ask things like, "Who can read?" because they want to kill those people.  But becoming part of the band probably saved Arn's life.  As he put it, he became "a little bit famous" and this afforded him some protection because he was in the Khmer Rouge soldiers' good graces.

Arn is able to form a little family of people he cares about made up of his band leader and some of the other kids in the band.  He has no idea what happened to his actual family.  He assumes they are all dead.  When Cambodia is invaded by the Vietnamese, young children, including Arn, are recruited into the army.  The children are then used as bait to lure opposing soldiers out.

Arn is able to make it into Thailand, where he is placed in a refugee camp with other children.  Now he is afraid that other people will find out that he fought for the Khmer Rouge.  An American takes interest him and brings him to America, and Arn must deal with the incredible culture shock.

It's a difficult but amazing story to read.  Arn had to do some terrible things to survive.  Were they justified because of the horrifying situation he was in? 

Be aware that the book contains descriptions of the dead and dying.  Arn talks about the rotting smell that comes from a large mound of earth that keeps growing, and realizing what it is.  It will be a difficult and emotional read for some middle school students.

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