Never fall down by Patricia McCormick

cover image

Doubleday, 2012. ISBN 978 0 857 53221 3.
(Age: 14+) Recommended. Boy soldiers. Children in war. For those who recall McCormick's, Sold (2009) will understand that she does not hold back in her descriptions of children in desperate situations around the world. Sold shows a young naive girl sold into sexual slavery in Nepal, and this shows a young boy, taken by the Khmer Rouge and forced into being a soldier. Based on a true story, Never fall down, will educate and inform as well as tell a story that perhaps some will find hard to read. After extensive interviews with the person on whose life the story is based, Arn, the tale is told in short, clipped phrases seeming to emulate the speech of someone new to speaking English. It makes the reading more abrupt and interrupted, rather like the life of the young man in question.
In a village in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge move in, we see first hand what happened in that country when it is taken over by fanatics. All who disapprove of their regime is killed: those who are educated, those who hold official jobs, those who have money. All killed. To survive, Arn learns to play music, learning very quickly from one old man who, once his tutelage is finished, is killed.
The boy moulds a small band at the Khmer Rouge instructions, eventually realising that the reason for the music is to drown out the noise of those being executed: usually by a hammer bow to the head. Starvation and many deaths follow. as millions of villagers are taken from their homes and forced into slave labour. The young learn not to recognise people they know: they learn to keep a mask on their faces telling their tormenters nothing. And if the camps are not bad enough, when the Vietnamese Army moves west to take Cambodia back from the Khmer Rouge, Arn, always thinking only of survival, learns how to use a rifle and becomes a boy soldier to live.
This is not an easy read, the brutality of the Khmer Rouge is overwhelming, and the story is told in bare clipped prose that makes it all the more real. Rescued from a refugee camp, Arn and several others were taken to the USA by an unusual man, where he found life most difficult, but in finding a place of safety, Arn Chorn-Pond founded Children of War, an organisation which aims to help those children whose lives have been uprooted by war, and now works with Cambodian Living Arts, a group he again founded to encourage the few musicians who survived the Khmer Rouge to pass on their knowledge.
Fran Knight