Never Fall Down – Patricia McCormick
Dealing with jammed laminators, adding apps and syncing iPad carts, ordering books, conducting library orientation sessions, collaborating with teachers on new projects for the year, collaborating with NEW teachers on new projects for the year – let’s face it…the start of the school year is EXHAUSTING. It is so easy to feel overwhelmed and stressed out and zombie-fied from the back-to-school craziness that nothing brings some perspective crashing down quite like a book on the Cambodian Killing Fields – Patricia McCormick’s Never Fall Down. As much as I’d like to feel sorry for my overworked self, my woes ain’t nothing…
Arn is the eleven-year-old narrator of McCormick’s chilling book based on the true story of Killing Fields’ survivor, Arn Chorn Pond, who watched as the Khmer Rouge brutally murdered his entire family before sending him to work long hours in appalling conditions in a Cambodian rice paddy. When the book opens, Arn is a carefree boy living with his parents, older sisters and little brother in a village in 1970s Cambodia. One day, soldiers start coming through his village inquiring as to who is educated and who has money – and Arn notices that the people who are more educated and have the better jobs leave with these soldiers never to return. Within a few weeks, the soldiers announce everyone will leave the village for three days to avoid some American soldiers coming through – only those three days turn into a years-long nightmare for Arn and his people.
Forced to walk for miles to a rice field where they’ll work 21 hour-long days, Arn recounts how older people and small children make the mistake of asking for water or saying they’re tired, only to be smashed in the head with the butt of a gun or stabbed with bayonets by the Khmer Rouge. Age and ability mean nothing. Four-year-olds work alongside thirty-year-olds work alongside seventy year-olds as they gather rice in the rain, many days working these long hours without anything but one bowl of soup for nourishment. Arn watches as his people drop dead from exhaustion, malaria, dysentery, and starvation as the dirt mounds nearby filled with dead bodies and reeking of rotting flesh continually grow larger. So how does Arn survive? By volunteering to play an instrument and entertain the Khmer Rouge soldiers with music. He also keeps his mouth shut, doing exactly as they order him to do, including dumping and burying the dead bodies of his family and friends.
Needless to say, this is a gut-wrenching read. Gut-wrenching as in some scenes you can literally feel your insides twisting and churning as the bile rises in your throat to know horrors like this went on - human beings actually did this to other human beings! – and that similar genocides are a part of our world today. Other than knowing the names/terms Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge and killing fields, I knew very little about this sad history of the Cambodian people. Just as Ruta Sepetys’ recent book, Between Shades of Gray, enlightened readers as to the atrocities that went on in Soviet labor camps during World War II, this book sheds light on a country that persecuted and killed many of its minority people while the rest of the world turned a blind eye. Like Between Shades of Gray's Lina, Arn fights to survive and refuses to let others forget what happened to his family and people - his voice keeps their memory alive. While these subjects may not be taught in U.S. classrooms, that doesn’t mean our students shouldn’t be made aware of the genocides that exist outside of the Jewish Holocaust. A chapter or excerpts could be read from either Between Shades of Gray or Never Fall Down in class as a tie-in to other incidences of genocide throughout history and in modern times – the Old Testament through Darfur - with much discussion as to should other countries get involved...and to what extent. We may not want to know events like this happened, but we need to know they happened…and, worst of all, are still happening. To learn more about Patricia McCormick and her other books, you can visit her website at http://patriciamccormick.com/ .