Of the novels selected as National Book Award finalists in the Young People’s Literature category, Patricia McCormick’s Never Fall Down is the title that my high school students would reach for. McCormick’s latest novel is based on the life of Arn Chorn-Pond, a survivor of the Cambodian genocide. It is a story of a young boy who grows into a teenager on the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge, a young boy who endures unspeakable trauma, and survives. My students are drawn to books that feature violence and drama and tragedy, in part because they crave perspective: a way to understand the small and large tragedies of their lives, to appreciate the bounty of resources and freedoms available to them, and to feel grateful rather than burdened.
They want to read about kids like them, dealing with hardships both familiar and alien, encountering struggles and learning perseverance. Patricia McCormick must have a keen awareness of how compelling such topics are to young readers: her earlier novel Sold deals with a young Nepali girl who is sold in to sex slavery, Cut with a protagonist who self-harms. Both books are widely read among my students. A few kids actively avoid what they label as “depressing books,” but many more reach for McCormick’s titles and others: Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father, Dave Eggers’s What is the What, Lewis Alsamari’s Escape from Saddam. And through these stories of remarkable young people, my students grow in their capacity for empathy and in their knowledge of the world.
So if Never Fall Down would be their first choice from the selection of National Book Award finalists, Out of Reach by Carrie Arcos would be their second — a book not about a nation wracked by genocide, but a family broken by addiction. In both books we find a young protagonist clinging to hope in the face of pain and loss. Young readers open books and hope to find some piece of themselves reflected in the pages. And while it is easy to dismiss this urge as the notorious ego-centricity of teenagers, and true that they are often ignorant of national and international affairs, it doesn’t follow that exposure to diverse topics of great depth leaves them apathetic. On the contrary, as evidenced by the Kony 2012 social media explosion, teenagers have the capacity to care a great deal, even if they are often under-informed, or unsure of how to best direct their compassion to action.
What they can do, is read. And you cannot read books like these, hear a story like Arn Chorn-Pond’s, without feeling a sense of incredulity at the fortune of your life. And when you are young, as you construct your identity and determine your place in your world, you must grapple with the disparity of experience determined by the time and place of one’s birth, with the suffering that abounds near and far, with the resilience of the human spirit which allows for hope in the face of this suffering. For my students, reading a book like Never Fall Down will forever change the way they see the world.
In April of 1975, Arn Chorn-Pond’s hometown of Battambang, Cambodia is full of life. “At night in our town, it’s music everywhere,” Patricia McCormick begins Never Fall Down, in the voice of Arn. “Rich house. Poor house. Doesn’t matter. Everyone has music.” Arn is nine years old, and the other sounds of his nighttime village, the whistles of bombs falling in the distance, serve as little more to him than the authenticating backdrop to the make-believe battles he and his younger brother play, taking turns flying the plane, being the hero: “We shoot probably a hundred bullet, die a hundred time.”
When the real war comes to Arn’s city, it is the Khmer Rouge who bring it. These soldiers in their “black pajamas,” many no older than Arn, force the people of Battambang out of their homes and into the street, where they are told that they must leave their town, but only for three days. Their forced exodus is replicated across Cambodia, as the Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot’s guerrilla Communist regime, evacuate whole cities into the countryside, and attempt to build a radical agrarian society. Thousands of Cambodians die during these first forced marches, and it is during his evacuation from his home that Arn first realizes the astonishing human capacity to become desensitized: “In just one day a person can get use to seeing dead body.”
Three days pass, but the people of Battambang are not allowed to return home. Over the next four years, Arn will be subjected to starvation and torture, will watch helplessly as his friends and family are killed and displaced, will learn to do whatever is necessary to survive. As is the terrible fate of children soldiers across the globe, and all the powerless held captive by violent and criminal regimes, Arn must hide his humanity, must hide it so well that he risks losing it forever. “I make my eyes blank,” McCormick writes of Arn’s tactic for avoiding the wrath of the Khmer Rouge. “You show you care, you die. You show fear, you die. You show nothing, maybe you live.”
There are other rules of survival. When the Khmer Rouge first invade his city, Arn’s aunt and caregiver gathers him and his siblings in her arms and instructs them, “Do whatever they say…Be like the grass. Bend low, bend low, then bend lower. The wind blow one way, you bow that way. It blow you the other way, you do, too. That is the way to survive.” Bend, but do not fall. Arn sees too many fall: some cut down by the Khmer Rouge, some who fall as they walk, as they stand, even as they sit, like the girl who dies sitting next to him as they eat the bowls of dirt and water that pass for dinner. And though he sometimes dreams of falling down too, he resolves to stay alive:
So hungry all the time now, my stomach eat itself, a pain like never I had before in my life. And so tire, I think sometime I sleep standing up. Other time I think maybe I will just lie down in the field; the ground, it call my name. I see some kids die in the field. They just fall down. Maybe it’s malaria. Or maybe they starve. They fall down, they never get up. Over and over I tell myself one thing: never fall down.
As a child, as a teenager, Arn Chorn-Pond did not have the luxury of exploring human suffering in the abstract, as many of my students do. His story, as told by Patricia McCormick, is one of bravery, of fierce resilience, of compassion and hope in the face of ineffable evil. It is the story of how music saved his life, how friends and strangers saved his life, how his personal strength saved his life, how luck saved his life. It is the story of his determination never to fall down, but to bend, and survive. As he crosses the border to Thailand, four years after first being driven from his home, Arn is a whole lifetime in one young man, but he is alive. “And me, a soldier who kill every day, me, with body, with heart like old man, I crawl like baby.”