A few years back I asked students to interview their families about their experiences when the family members were teenagers. One student from Cambodia started the interview with his dad only to have it interrupted quickly with a somber, “You don’t want to know.”
I found out that my student’s father had survived the Killing Fields of Pol Pot, a violent dictator that led Cambodia in the 1970’s. The Khmer Rouge came to power and murdered anyone who didn’t agree with them or fit with their racial plan for the world. This was the 1970’s, a generation after World War II and the Nazis, and yet genocide was still happening (as it is in other parts of the world even today).
Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick tells the story of Arn, a young boy caught in the violence of a country in upheaval. McCormick does a phenomenal job with taking very, very serious topics – topics that have such a huge scope – and making them accessible to audiences that otherwise may not have known (let alone related to) the issues in her books. Protagonist Arn is someone you can connect with as he experiences the sorrow of being separated from his family, the terror as he tries to survive in the Cambodian jungle, and the remorse as he is drafted into the Khmer Rouge army.
The serious tone is not overwhelming to the point of depressing, though, because there are glimmers of hope throughout the narrative. Even in the worst circumstances, people are reaching beyond themselves to take risks for what they know is right and to help fellow strangers. Arn expresses the full range of emotions, reminding the reader of humanity in the midst of tragedy. It’s so expertly done by McCormick that it just seems natural.
One thing that really caught my attention was McCormick’s diligence with Arn’s grammar. As he’s telling the story in English and not Khmer, his word choice reflects a grammar sometimes found in non-native speakers. McCormick’s linguistic rendering is impressive in its accuracy and yet readability.
Never Fall Down, a title that has so many connotations throughout the story, is a perfect gift to the real-life Arn Chorn-Pond. The man has gone on to found the Cambodian Living Arts foundation to preserve the amazing culture that could have been lost when 2 million people died (25% of the people in a population of 8 million) during the Khmer Rouge rule. Yes, the book deals with harsh stuff, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is one that will stick with me. Just like Cambodian Living Arts preserves a nation’s culture, Never Fall Down will preserve Arn’s story. It’s one that I’m backing for the Grand Canyon Reader Award.