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Never Fall Down was one absolutely devastating read. I was not prepared for its searing authenticity and intensely emotional message; it took me by surprise, broke my heart to pieces and left me drained and breathless, but also very satisfied and enriched. Reading this book was an experience like no other. Profoundly harrowing and cathartic, Never Fall Down tells a true story of Arn Chorn-Pond, a child soldier in Cambodia who later became famous for his advocacy of peace and civil rights. With her raw and painfully realistic prose, Patricia McCormick weaves a gripping tale of death, abuse, starvation, terror, and brainwashing. A poignant story of survival against all odds and keeping one's humanity. This is a book with a beating heart, and one that everyone - and I mean EVERYONE - should read.
Arn Chorn-Pond was born into a family of performing musicians that owned and ran a famous opera in Cambodia. When the Khmer Rouge (a ruthless organization that was following the Communist Party of Kampuchea) came to power, Chorn-Pond (and hundreds other children) was separated from his family and sent away to a work camp, where all the kids were forced to work in rice fields from sunrise to late night hours. Starved, terrified and growing weaker with every passing day, Chorn-Pond witnessed people dying all around him: from exhaustion and starvation, from sickness (like malaria), or simply being executed by the Khmer Rouge "Camrades" (for having too pale a skin, or too soft hands, or for not working hard enough). He had to learn how to bottle up his emotions, how to make himself numb and desensitized to all the death and horrors around him. He had to adapt and find a way to survive. Later on, Chorn-Pond and a group of other boys were chosen to play propaganda songs for the camp soldiers. That saved him from the certain death in the fields, but it also put him right in the middle of the Killing Fields (sites outside Phnom Penh, where nearly 17,000 people were tortured, executed, and buried in mass graves). When Cambodia was invaded by the Vietnamese, and the country was standing on the brink of liberation, this young teenage boy was handed a gun, sent to the front lines, and forced to become a soldier.
This book literally broke my heart to pieces. And the fact that it's based on a true story only makes it that much harder to stomach and embrace the events described in its pages. I loved the raw prose, the broken-English with all the spelling and grammar mistakes - all that made the narrative voice feel real, dynamic and convincing. It was almost as if Arn Chorn-Pond was sitting in the room with me and I was listening to him tell the story in an urgent, strained voice. In her "Dear Reader" note at the beginning of the book, Patricia McCormick explains how difficult it was for her to capture the authenticity of that voice, she says: "Trying to capture that voice was like trying to bottle a lightning bug. Every time I imposed the rules of grammar or syntax on it, the light went out. And so, after hundreds of interviews here and in Cambodia, where we traced the steps of his childhood and came face-to-face with the Khmer Rouge soldier who was both his warden and friend, I chose to use Arn's own distinct and beautiful voice." And I thank you for that, Mrs. McCormick. That was an excellent choice. Chorn-Pond's voice is what truly made this book for me.
The story itself is very sad, disquieting, and often absolutely horrific, but it's also one that ends with hope for the future and tears of happiness. I did cry while reading it, and quite a lot too. A couple of times I had trouble catching my breath.. And I definitely felt depressed, disturbed and broken. Never Fall Down affected me deeply and in ways I really didn't think possible. Something about this boy, and the way he tells his own story, was just so intensely emotional and overpowering, I couldn't help but to get completely immersed in it. It was draining. It was overwhelming. But it was also very rewarding, thought-provoking and unforgettable. And while all throughout this novel my stomach was twisted in a tight knot, I came out of reading it armed with at least three important things: knowledge about the Khmer Rouge and their crimes against humanity, compassion for all the victims, and admiration of Chorn-Pond's unbreakable spirit and inspiring courage.
This is a really powerful story. I think people who liked The Hunger Games will gravitate towards this one, but it can be a little hard to get through at times because it's a true story and therefore incredibly sad. But still worth checking out!
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