HarperCollins Publishers|April 30, 2012|Hardcover|ISBN 978-0-06-173093-1
When soldiers arrive at his hometown in Cambodia, Arn is just a kid, dancing to rock ‘n’ roll, hustling for spare change, and selling ice cream with his brother. But after the soldiers march the entire population into the countryside, his life is changed forever. Arn is separated from his family and assigned to a labor camp: working in the rice paddies under a blazing sun, he sees the other children, weak from hunger, malaria, or sheer exhaustion, dying before his eyes. He sees prisoners marched to a nearby mango grove, never to return. And he learns to be invisible to the sadistic Khmer Rouge, who can give or take away life on a whim.
One day, the soldiers ask if any of the kids can play an instrument. Arn’s never played a note in his life, but he volunteers. In order to survive, he must quickly master the strange revolutionary songs the soldiers demand – and steal food to keep the other kids alive. This decision will save his life, but it will pull him into the very center of what we know today as the Killing Fields. And just as the country is about to be liberated from the Khmer Rouge, Arn is handed a gun and forced to become a soldier. He lives by the simple credo: Over and over I tell myself one thing: never fall down.
Based on the true story of Arn Chorn-Pond, this is an achingly raw and powerful novel about a child of war who becomes a man of peace, from National Book Award Finalist Patricia McCormick.
Arn Chorn-Pond is only 11 years old. In his town of Battambang, Cambodia the people come out at night and make music. Music is everywhere. Rich people and poor people alike congregate together and play radios, record players and eight-track cassettes. In Arn’s town, “music is like air, always there.” The men and ladies stroll through the park to catch the newest songs. Men play cards while ladies sell mangoes, noodles, wristwatches and other wares. Kids fly kites and eat ice cream, it’s a happy place.
Arn and his little brother, Munny like to dance for pleasure and to entertain the neighbours. They loved to do “the twist”. They also like to watch the movies in the cinema but don’t have the money to pay so they find a rather stout woman, stand beside her and get in for free. If kids are with a parent they get in at no charge.
After the show which had lots of shooting, they played outside mimicking what they saw on the big screen. Suddenly they hear a whistle and the sky far away flashes white. The palm trees shiver, the ground shakes and they suddenly realize the war is “real.” They run to the pond near their home, jump in, water up to their noses and hide there. The following day the music is back and the war is gone, it had come close but not into their town.
Arn’s father was killed in a motorcycle accident and his mother was forced to go to Phnom Penh for work so the children lived with their aunt – Arn, his brother, Munny and four sisters; Sophea, Chantou, Maly, and Jorami. Their aunt had no children so she loved them as if they were her own.
One morning the Khmer Rouge arrive in Cambodia with bullhorns riding in trucks telling people that the Americans are coming to bomb the city and everyone, the entire country must leave, evacuate immediately but will be allowed to return home in 3 days. They are told to walk 12 miles into the countryside. The entire population of Cambodia is leaving in droves, each carrying something – bags of rice, blankets, food, dried fish and other items. All of Cambodia is now on the road walking into the countryside. A hundred thousand people.
While walking, a kid who knows Arn yells from behind for him to wait up. He tells Arn that his father is a high ranking official and had gone to the airport with the Khmer Rouge. He said his big brother was hiding in the bush and watched the Khmer Rouge shoot his father to death. He says the Khmer Rouge is going to kill them all. Arn witnesses a man asking the Khmer Rouge for a drink of water for his pregnant wife, but he only grunts and points his gun for the man to keep moving forward. The man opened his mouth to say something else but the Khmer Rouge hit the man in the cheek with his gun. Arn learned right then to “be invisible around these Khmer Rouge guys.” As Arn continues to walk he sees various people along the road with bullet holes and others with blood coming out of their mouths and others with shirts full of blood. Arn thought: “in one day a person can get used to seeing a dead body.”
Finally, many miles into the countryside, the Khmer Rouge tell 1,000 people to stop and make camp. The rest keep walking until they reach another field where another 1,000 people are told to make camp. The Khmer Rouge had promised they could return to their homes in 3 days but it’s now already been one week.
The Khmer Rouge forced everyone to dig ditches in the hot blazing sun all day and the only break they get is when they use the latrine. Arn discovers a huge hole in the ground while taking his little brother to the latrine. The smell emanating from the hole is horrendous and unlike anything he has ever smelled before. Arn soon figures out that the Khmer Rouge are killing all the rich people, those who are well-educated with good jobs, soldiers, doctors, and musicians. It appears if you’re poor, they leave you alone. Arn discovers the list in a black book, that’s how they decide who lives and who dies.
One day the Khmer Rouge forced everyone to strip naked and then gave them a pair of black pajamas to wear. Now all women, men, and children are dressed the same. They burned all their other clothing. The Khmer Rouge tell the people: “now all of us live as equals, no rich, no poor.” They are told that now everything belongs to “Angka”. Each day they are woken at 4:00AM and forced to work in the rice paddies under the blazing hot sun until dark then given a dinner of rice soup and salt.
The atrocities that these people faced was horrible and hard to believe that people, human beings, could be so very cruel. Never Fall Down is a difficult book to read but a necessary book to read. I think everyone needs to read this true story to understand the magnitude of destruction of human life the Khmer Rouge forced upon the people of Cambodia. Patricia McCormick has told Arn Chorn-Pond’s story well and my hat goes off to Arn for having the stamina, courage and fortitude to change from being a killing machine to a man of peace. An excellent piece of work!