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.
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
I’m surprised Never Fall Down hasn’t received much attention despite being a National Book Award finalist. I suspect it’s because of it’s categorization as a young-adult historical/non-fiction that just doesn’t sound as appealing against the host of dystopians cropping up lately. But Never Fall Down is a dystopian of its own, complete with information suppression, ruthless tyranny, moral ambiguities, twisted ideals, and a young hero’s desperate fight to survive another day. Despite being a mere two hundred pages Never Fall Down is easily much more frightening than any dystopian you’ll ever read because these horrifying events are real. Never Fall Down will terrify you, but its grit will pick you back up and leave you with a tear-stained cheek.
Arn, Redefining Badass (This Kid Really Knows How To Survive)
Arn’s strength is soul of the entire book. How he adapts to his circumstances to survive while other kids are either sabotaging their peers or waiting to die is nothing short of incredible. He witnesses the ugliness of humanity, yet still retains a modicum of sympathy. Despite being hungry, he hides food to feed his friends (And also as a bribe.) Despite all the killing he witnesses (and is responsible for,) we also see him conflicted over his morality, asking himself why he is evil.
Gore, More Blood Than A Horror Novel:
There were some very graphic passages (cannibalism, prisoners having their livers cut out, etc.) that I felted tested the limits of Young Adult literature. Going into this book, I expected something milder, along the lines of Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, where genocide was only hinted at and never described in excruciating detail, but Never Fall Down opts for the realistic, unedited route. I fully agree with Never Fall Down’s 14+ age categorization, for it is even bloodier than an your average adult horror novel.
Writing (Arn’s Accent):
I realize that I’m usually impatient with accents in young adult literature (The Knife of Never Letting Go and Blood Red Road,) but it worked in Never Fall Down. The lack of plurals and clumsy grammar was convincing in letting Arn’s voice shine through. I smiled when I read some passages out loud, which reminded me of the Filipino accents (although Arn is Cambodian) so common here in Hawaii.
My own gripe with this novel was the pacing. There were moments where I didn’t know where the story was heading (especially after his escape to Thailand) and the book dragged as one horrifying experience after another.
Overall, a powerful, inspiring, and heart-wrenchingly raw novel that I won’t forget anytime soon. I know I am guilty of straying away from painful, gritty real-world topics such as war, but sometimes these are the books I need to remind me that I’m fortunate to be literate, and not forced to plant rice on a empty stomach twenty hours a day while people around me are brutally murdered (and not even with a gun, because that would be “wasting bullets”.) I urge you not to be intimidated and join Arn’s journey.