2012 National Book Award finalist for Young People’s Literature: Patricia McCormick, Never Fall Down
November 6, 2012 § 2 Comments
Tonight it’s another meeting. These meeting, sometime they last four hour. Always, someone talking about Angka. Sometime, you so tire, you fall asleep. But you too afraid the Khmer Rouge will see, so your sleep, your eyes open.
This night one Khmer Rouge, a high-ranking guy, he take money from his pocket and rip it into shred. I wake up for this, to see someone so crazy he tear up money. “No need for money now,” he says. “No school, no store, no mail, no religion. No thing from the American, from the imperialist. In Cambodia, now it’s Year Zero.”
No one can talk at these meetings. No one allowed. But one old lady, she mutter. “This guy is not the prince. The prince, he’s the only one who can decide; only he can say this.”
I think the Khmer Rouge gonna kill her, but the man, again, he make a Buddha face. “Angka,” he says, “sees what inside your heart. The prince, he has two eyes. Angka, as many as a pineapple.” (Ch. 2, e-book p. 20)
Patricia McCormick’s National Book Award-nominated Never Fall Down straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction. Based on two years of interviews with Cambodian refugee Arn Chorn-Pond, Never Fall Down is Chorn-Pond’s tale of survival in the 1970s during Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror in Cambodia just before the Vietnamese invaded to overthrow that genocidal regime. McCormick notes that although the main basis of the book lies in Chorn-Pond’s own recollections, she conceived of it as a novel (similar to what Dave Eggers did with Valentino Achak Deng’s life in What is the What) in order to “connect the dots” of Chorn-Pond’s recollections with the events of the day.
As a novel, Never Fall Down succeeds brilliantly. McCormick chose to use Chorn-Pond’s distinct use of English in order to convey a sense of loss and terror. Too easily, this approach could have been viewed as stereotypical, yet there’s a brutal honesty within this narrative that does not allow for anything other than Chorn-Pond’s own voice to be used. Considering the tale of his time as a young boy playing music for the Khmer Rouge operatives while fearing each night would be the night that he would be the next one to “disappear,” there is a sense of immediacy and utter, abject fear that makes for a compelling read.
Never Fall Down‘s narrative is graphic and evokes a vivid sense of the sort of misery that Chorn-Pond and the other children in his group experienced. Take for instance this description of the perils of camp life from Ch. 3:
We kids, so hungry now, we hunt for food for ourself. Insect, frog, maybe mushroom or plant. So many kids crawling for food all over, maybe three hundred kids still living, it’s hard to find this food. And some kids, lotta kids, eat poison plant, maybe spider, and die. Me, I eat the tamarind fruit. Very sour and very good. But also give you diarrhea. Already I have diarrhea, but I can’t help it; I still eat the tamarind. You eat some, your mouth wrinkle up inside, and you want some more. You eat more, your stomach pain you so much, you can’t stand straight.
All the kid have diarrhea now. With this diarrhea, you feel like you have to shit a hundred times each night. You so tired, you work all day, you almost think, maybe I can shit right here in my bed. Some kid do. Then Khmer Rouge get very angry, beat them. So you don’t care how tired, you get up. You go to the latrine, and it’s crawling with maggot; just one board, very slippery, over a ditch, also crawling with maggot. Some kid so weak, they fall in. I think they die too. (p. 25 e-book)
It is one thing to hear of the killing fields of 1970s Cambodia, but the reality of the depravity of the Khmer Rouge in their attempt to out-Mao Mao and to enforce a brutal form of peasant collectivization on Cambodia after their rise to power in the early 1970s is stomach-churning. Chorn-Pond, through McCormick’s deft weaving of his recollections with those of other camp children, had been removed from his family by the Khmer Rouge and sent to a camp in the fields. There he made a precarious living playing music for hours for the local troops, hoping that he will be the one that when he is cook gets to cook the human livers harvested for meals rather than being the one whose liver will be fried next.
The Cambodian genocide was perhaps the second-worst genocide of the twentieth century after the Holocaust. Estimates range that between 1-3 million people died over a four-year span from 1975-1979, out of a pre-Khmer Rouge population of 8 million. The events narrated within Never Fall Down are brutally true to the reality, as there are references to the various ways in which the Khmer Rouge deposed of the “surplus population” that were removed from the cities, with the mass live burials (the killing fields) being the most infamous. It was tough to read the descriptions of what happened, the callous brutality of the Khmer Rouge soldiers, the suffering of children such as Chorn-Pond, but McCormick does an outstanding job detailing just what Chorn-Pond and others experienced. Never since I first read Elie Wiesel’s Night had I read such a terribly accurate and graphic depiction of the suffering of children at the hands of a cruel government.
The only quibble I had with Never Fall Down is trying to decide what might be the best age group for reading this. Certainly it is not an account that early middle school students would be ready to handle; perhaps high school or even beyond is best for readers who might be sensitive to such graphic depictions. Other than that, Never Fall Down is easily the best of the 2012 Young People’s Literature nominees. It easily could have been finalist in the Fiction category, as its subject matter and the quality of McCormick’s prose make it a fitting read for teens and older. One of the best 2012 releases in any genre that I have read this year.