Thursday, May 31, 2012

Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick

 "Then this guy, he take the ax, small ax like for chopping, and he hit one kneeling guy on the back of the head. The guy fall down, like just a pile of rag hitting the ground very fast. Then the Khmer Rouge, he go down the line, hit each one. Terrible sound, like cracking a coconut, only its a human head.
"You," he says to me, "You put them in the ditch."
I don't want to do this, but I do it. My body does what this guy says. I push the people, very heavy, lot of blood. I push them into the grave. I do it. One guy, he's not even dead. They say to push him in anyway."
These days, young adult fiction is exploring more and more frequently relatively recent events such as apartheid in South Africa, the Civil Rights movement in the United States, the Cultural Revolution in China, the Bosnian conflict, the Rwandan genocide, and the Gulf War. I have lived through the time period when all of the above occurred. I remember reading newspaper accounts and seeing television coverage.

For some of these events, such as the Civil Rights movement, I was too young to process what was really happening. For others, such as the Rwandan conflict, it has been difficult to comprehend the magnitude of the killing and the horrors perpetrated on others.

One of the best ways to learn about the past is through fictional accounts which bring to life, for the reader, the event and explore what it meant for people living through them. Never Fall Down is one such book, although  the person who narrates the story, Arn Chorn Pond, is a real person, living in the United States today.

Never Fall Down tells the story of the Khmer Rouge and the murderous genocide they wreaked upon their own people of Cambodia. When the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, Arn was a nine year old boy living in Battambang, Cambodia with his family. Arn's father had recently died in a motorcycle accident which meant that his family could no longer run their opera business. His mother, an opera singer left the family to sing in Phnom Penh, while Arn, his sisters Chantou, Maly, Jorami, Sophea and his younger brother Munny live with their Aunt.

At first everyone is happy that the war is over. The Khmer Rouge soldiers fill the city, and ask everyone who has a uniform to put it on. These men are promptly marched out to the airfield and executed. Soon anyone who is wealthy and educated is executed.

The Khmer soldiers told the people that an American plane was coming to bomb the city and that all the residents must flee into the countryside. Arn and his family soon learnthat this is not the case. After three days of forced marching during which hundreds die, they find themselves in a camp. At this camp all of the children are separated and sent to a new camp where they are fed little and work from dawn to dusk.

When the Khmer Rouge ask if anyone can play music, Arn volunteers, believing that he will be killed, but hoping that this will get him out of the fields and the back breaking work. Instead, he is trained by an old musician to play the khim, a wooden stringed instrument which is played using a bamboo stick. He has five days to learn the new Khmer Rouge songs on an instrument he has never played before. The elderly music teacher tells that once he has taught Arn the songs, he will be killed because the Khmer Rouge do not want anyone who knows the old songs to live. Soon after, like many other Cambodians, the music teacher never returns.
"To live with nothing in your stomach and a gun in your face," he says, "is that living or is that dying a little bit every day?"
For Arn, so begins three long years under the Khmer Rouge regime, which only ended when he managed to escape from Cambodia to a Thailand refugee camp during the Vietnamese invasion. Once in the refugee camp, Arn was visited and eventually adopted by an American pastor, Peter L. Pond. Pond who adopted sixteen Cambodian orphans was both a tireless worker on behalf of the Cambodian people and a controversial figure.

For Arn, being adopted and taken to America was only the beginning of a long journey towards healing.Arn was a terrified boy who endured the most brutal and barbaric events, including his own repeated rape by a Khmer girl, and watching the countless gruesome murders of others as well a becoming a child soldier himself. It took him many years to tame the "tiger" in his heart - the hate that came from so much horror. But Arn chose to live and to tell the rest of the world what the Khmer Rouge did to Cambodians. He chose to live and try to save a part of his culture, the traditional music of Cambodia.

Never Fall Down is not for the faint of heart and readers and those recommending this novel need to be aware that the content in this story is deeply disturbing and vividly graphic. Never Fall Down is gruesome and heartrending. McCormick tells a story the evokes strong emotions of horror and sadness.

McCormick effectively captures the voice of Arn, through the use of the typical broken sentence structure that many nonnative speakers use when first speaking English. McCormick told Arn's story this way to retain the true nature of his story.  Since Arn was unable to recall  the details of many events, Patricia McCormick added details from her own research. Her novel is the result of intense, detailed interviews with Arn, as well as trips to Cambodia to trace his journey with the Khmer Rouge.

The title, Never Fall Down  refers to the expression Arn would say to himself in order to survive.

In this video, Patricia McCormick talks with Arn Chorn Pond about his childhood and her book:

In this video, Arn Chorn talks about his experiences under the Khmer Rouge and how the culture of music was almost destroyed by the brutal Pol Pot regime.

"Every day I had kill my own heart in order to endure. It was worse than a nightmare."

The Khmer Rouge was organized by Pol Pot in 1960 in the jungles of Cambodia on the heels of Vietnam's embrace of Communism. Both countries saw Communisim as a way to rid themselves of their French colonial regimes. By 1975, the Khmer Rouge was able to capture the capital of Cambodia, Phenom Penh, and form a new government which they called the Kampuchean People's Republic. Once in power, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge soldiers set about killing anyone with education, wealth or skills. All the rest were sent to work farms where 1.7 million souls died between 1975 and 1978. The countryside became known as the "Killing Fields".  In 1979, the Vietnamese invaded the country and established a more moderate communist government. Pol Pot was never tried for crimes against humanity and apparently died in 1998 of natural causes. Let us pray justice was done on the other side.

For more information on the Khmer Rouge please see Cambodia Tribunal Monitor.

Book Details:
Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick
New York: Balzer & Bray    2012
216 pp.

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