Arn Chorn-Pond, the young narrator of Patricia McCormick’s novel Never Fall Down, finally escapes Cambodia and makes it to the safety of Thailand sometime in the spring of 1979. At the very same time, I was getting ready to graduate from high school. I knew nothing of the Khmer Rouge and their violence – or if I did, I don’t remember. Reading Arn’s story has reminded me again of the priviledged life I’ve lead and of the absolute power of literature to crack open the insulated world in which we often live.
Arn is just eleven when the Khmer Rouge, a radical Communist regime, and an offshoot of the Vietnam People’s Army, sweeps through Cambodia displacing people and separating families. Arn has lived a relatively happy life up until then. He says, “At night in our town, it’s music everywhere. Rich house. Poor house. Doesn’t matter. Everyone has music.”
When the army blows through town, it’s exciting. Arn says, “…I think this is the most exciting thing to happen here. Real Americans coming. Real airplane.” But that excitement doesn’t last. Soon Arn, his aunt and his siblings (four sisters and one brother) are marching out of town with everyone else. And then the real horror begins.
And this book is horrific.
McCormick spent two years interviewing Arn and then made the choice to tell his story as a novel because “like all trauma survivors, Arn can recall certain experiences in chilling detail; others he can only tell in vague generalities.” It’s no wonder his mind has decided to compartmentalize; the atrocities he’s witnessed are almost unbearable.
But Arn does bear them. He survives the separation from his family, the endless work in the rice fields, the starvation, illness, walking miles and miles through the heat. He makes himself indespensible by learning to play an instrument, but even that doesn’t save him from witnessing the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities against men, women and children.
And then, even more horrible, Arn suddenly finds himself with a gun in his hand, fighting with the very people who have held him captive for more than three years. Never Fall Down is a survival story because Arn surely does that.
McCormick makes the decision to tell this story in Arn’s distinctive sing-song voice and it’s a wise choice. We see everything though his eyes and he is a truthful and unflinching narrator.
One night the girl next to me at dinner, she dies. She dies just sitting there. No sound. Just no breathing anymore. All of us, we eat so fast, no one even see this girl. Very quick, I take her bowl of rice and keep eating.
I guess we can never really know what we’re capable of until we are put in the situation where our limits might be tested. Arn was a remarkable boy and he has turned into a remarkable man, a champion for humanitarian causes around the world and the winner of many international prizes. Never Fall Down is a must read book.
This video explains what happened during that period.
I also highly recommend the movie, The Killing Fields.