Patricia McCormick is no stranger to transforming traumatic true-life experiences into digestible and empathetically-rendered fiction. A former journalist, she tackled hard-hitting subjects in her previous four books, from cutting (CUT) and drug addiction from the addict’s sibling’s point of view (MY BROTHER’S KEEPER) to an American soldier’s guilty conscience during the Iraq war (PURPLE HEART) and human trafficking (SOLD). In each of these works, she delivered a searing portrayal of pain at its sharpest, and of redemption at its most necessary.
"Though McCormick’s book is fictional, its close adherence to Arn’s biography is the perfect introduction to a delicate topic, both in the classroom and at home."
In NEVER FALL DOWN, her fifth novel and second attempt at taking home the National Book Award (SOLD was also a finalist in 2007), McCormick follows 11-year-old Arn, a Cambodian boy whose relatives and neighbors are systematically rounded up to be slowly and brutally exterminated by the Communist Khmer Rouge over a four-year period, from 1975-1979. Told in Arn’s fragmented English, McCormick relays the horrors the Cambodian people experienced at the mercy of the “peasants in black pajamas” in almost excessively graphic detail, from the gnawing hunger and endless hours spent working in the rice fields without proper rest to the atrocious living conditions in the camp (latrines filled with maggots, slim cots adorned with dirty sheets) and the Khmer Rouge’s horrific methods of dispensing with the old, weak, or otherwise ill-equipped (an axe to the crown of the head or a bayonet to the liver, heart and spleen). The fact that a quarter of Cambodia’s population was murdered or died from starvation, disease, or weakness of spirit during this period is just one example of how McCormick’s sobering narrative so closely mirrors a disturbing reality.
Perhaps McCormick’s toughest challenge in conveying a plot draped in history to a younger audience who might not be familiar with the back-story is the need for a sense of balance in the telling. Despite the temptation to overplay the one-sided gruesomeness of the killings and the very real fear that affected Arn and countless other Cambodians, McCormick gives ample voice to the “other.” Allowing Sombo, a dough-faced and fierce Khmer Rouge soldier, to show his humanity and his heart by secretly taking Arn under his wing from time to time, teaches a crucial lesson: when pushed into monstrous situations, not everyone becomes a monster. On the flipside, McCormick understands all too well the unstoppable force of fear. In Arn’s recounting, no one flouts the will to survive, even if it means letting a friend die to save your own skin. From Khmer soldier to prisoner, it’s either kill or be killed: “I make my eye blank. You show you care, you die. You show fear, you die. You show nothing, maybe you live.”
Yet in the midst of all the bloodshed, there are bright moments interspersed throughout NEVER FALL DOWN. When Arn finds a semblance of peace through learning to play the khim (a Cambodian-style hammered dulcimer) and repeatedly risks his life to steal scraps of food for those less fortunate than him, it’s easier to forgive him later on when he becomes everything he hates as a Khmer Rouge soldier fighting against the advancing Vietnamese.
Though the bulk of the book deals with Arn’s time in captivity, McCormick tacks on a few chapters at the end detailing Arn’s arduous escape to a refugee camp in Thailand and his eventual adoption by an American benefactor. While these chapters feel a bit rushed and underdeveloped, they by no means signify a flawed finale nor detract from the book’s overall power or appeal. Instead, they provide necessary closure for a difficult topic that might be too abrasive for young, uninitiated readers to stomach otherwise.
In order to write NEVER FALL DOWN, McCormick spent countless hours interviewing the real-life Arn Chorn-Pond. She talked to many of Arn’s fellow survivors (including Sombo and Mek, Arn’s seminal music teacher) and traveled to Cambodia to retrace his steps. In her words, “I added to his recollections with my own research --- and my own imagination --- to fill in the missing pieces. The truth, I believe, is right there between the lines.” And indeed it is. Today, as McCormick writes in the Author’s Note, Arn is still working to overcome his tragic childhood and has become an outspoken advocate against genocide against the Cambodian people. In the 1980’s, he helped win the release of 10,000 prisoners still held hostage by the Khmer Rouge, and in 1998, he founded Cambodian Living Arts, an organization fostering a connection with Cambodia’s heritage through its traditional music.
Though McCormick’s book is fictional, its close adherence to Arn’s biography is the perfect introduction to a delicate topic, both in the classroom and at home.
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on October 18, 2012