Never Fall Down
Balzer + Bray: 224 pp., $17.99, ages 14 and up
When it comes to genocide, Hitler is obviously well covered. There are countless titles for young readers about the atrocities he inspired. The Khmer Rouge, which seized control of Cambodia in 1975 and, in its attempts to create an agrarian form of communism, killed millions of its own people, is less familiar territory, especially for young readers.
“Never Fall Down” offers a detailed look at what it was like to live under such a cruel government from the perspective of one of its best-known survivors, Arn Chorn Pond.
Pond was 11 when his village was invaded by the Khmer Rouge and his family was forced to march toward an uncertain future. Pond thought it was exciting at first, but after walking for days, passing babies left crying in the middle of the road and ditches filling with dead bodies, he began to realize: He wouldn’t be returning home in three days as his captors had said.
“Never Fall Down” is written in broken English from Pond’s present-tense point of view, which adds to the story’s authenticity and immediacy. But it is in the end a novel.
Patricia McCormick spent hundreds of hours interviewing Pond. She traveled to Cambodia with the now-45-year-old to retrace his every step during the three years, eight months and 20 days that the Khmer Rouge held power. She retraced his escape through a Thai refugee camp and interviewed members of his adoptive American family.
Though “Arn can recall certain experiences in chilling detail; others he can tell only in vague generalities,” McCormick writes in an author’s note at the end of the book, explaining her decision to write Pond’s true story as fiction. “He can describe the eerie click of a land mine being sprung and the hideous stink of a gangrenous leg ... but no one, especially not an eleven-year-old caught in the insanity of genocide, can remember conversations, dates, and places — especially when the perpetrators worked so hard to distort reality at every turn.”
“Never Fall Down” is similar to Dave Eggers’ fictionalized memoir of Sudanese child soldier Valentino Achak Deng in “What Is the What,” but it differs from McCormick’s 2008 National Book Award finalist, “Sold.” For that book she interviewed several Nepalese and Indian sex slave survivors, fusing their stories into a single, fictionalized character. “Never Fall Down” is a blend of Pond’s memories and McCormick’s research and imagination. “The truth,” McCormick writes, “is right there between the lines.”
And it is horrifying. It’s difficult to believe anyone was able to survive the atrocities Pond endured, which began with forced labor in the rice fields that often started at 4 in the morning and lasted until the dark of night, with only a bowl of thin rice soup thickened with dirt as nourishment. Eventually, as the Khmer Rouge took away professors, businessmen and anyone else with any connection to capitalism, Pond learned they were being executed and pushed into mass graves. He volunteered to learn an instrument that he played with part of a ragtag music group to cover the sound of the killings — a move that likely saved his life.
These scenes are described in horrifyingly vivid detail, but just when readers think the level of human depravity couldn’t possibly worsen, it does. Some forced laborers, whose bellies had become distended through famine, resorted to cannibalism, for which they were killed. Pond was forced to bury the bodies in an ever-growing pile. Then, when the Vietnamese invaded and Pond was forced to become a soldier for the Khmer Rouge, he too became a killer.
Separated from his family and his friends, Pond made his way to a refugee camp, where he suspected he may have survived only to die of a broken heart.
“All the time you are fighting, you think only of how to survive. All the time you survive, you wonder why you don’t die,” said Pond, who, after moving to the U.S. and enduring the usual traumas of assimilation, decided upon a third choice: to live.
It’s a marvel not only that Pond escaped but is sane enough to recount his story. Since 1984, he has been a human rights activist and champion of Cambodia’s traditional music.
Pond’s early life is an incredible story of survival against all odds, of innocence unduly robbed. By turns terrifying, heartbreaking and triumphant, “Never Fall Down” is as likely to inspire tears as it is to stick with readers for a lifetime.