Between 1975 and 1979 Cambodia was ruled by the Khmer Rouge, a radical communist regime that attempted agricultural reform by forcing their entire population to farm. The result was a mass genocide like none other in history. Around 2 million people, about a quarter of the population, died from famine and the tyranny of the Khmer Rouge rule. The mass graves that littered these farms became known as the “Killing Fields.”
Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick is based on Arn ChornPond’s real life experiences growing up during this atrocity. Early in the book, when Arn is 11, he and his family are forced out of their peaceful village by the Khmer Rouge to go work on the farms. The Khmer Rogue starts killing people for having “poor character” which can be anything from being too sick to work to just wearing glasses (a sign of intellectualism). At first, the killings shock Arn, but he quickly becomes used to it as death is a daily occurrence: from sickness, fatigue and the daily executions by the Khmer Rouge. Arn has only one goal, to survive, and he uses his skills as a musician to join a band and gain favor with officials. Arn does attempt to retain his humanity as best he can, by helping his friends and fellow band mates, sharing food and also encouraging them to survive. However, as the killings continue and the Vietnamese invade Cambodia, Arn comes closer and closer to what he fears the most: becoming Khmer Rouge himself.
I must admit, before reading Never Fall Down I knew very little about Cambodia and this atrocity. I had heard of the “Killing Fields” and knew that many had died in Cambodia, but facts and numbers are too abstract to show what it was like to actually live through such a horrible event. That’s why books like Never Fall Down are so important. They make these historical events real and show that these atrocities happened to actual people. The reader gets a better sense of the physical and psychological toll that such experiences have on people. And although this is a work of fiction, in the afterwords Patricia McCormick writes that she based it as closely to what actually happened to Arn as she could, only filling in parts that Arn does not remember. Never Fall Down was a difficult book to read but it also demonstrates that no matter how horrible things are, humanity finds a way to survive. It is definitely a worthwhile read.
Review by Simon, CLP – Knoxville