Look right through the past
I need to start paying more attention to the descriptions included on the back cover or the front flap of the books that I pick up to read. On one hand, ignoring the publisher’s descriptive text and just diving right into a read cold has helped me stumble upon some amazing literary discoveries that I probably would have passed over otherwise. On the other hand, not reading that short paragraph or two briefly describing what the book is all about can get me into trouble down the line. In the case of Patricia McCormick’s Never Fall Down, color me embarrassed.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m just not all that great with world history. Start talking about anything that occurred prior to my birth and I’m even worse. Don’t get me wrong; while I’m not a big fan of historical fiction, I am generally fascinated by any number of novels that are set in different time periods. I won’t shy away from a piece of fiction because it takes place in a certain era or eliminate something from my reading pile because it might place me out of my comfort zone with regards to my knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the given subject.
That long-winded introduction serves to set up the fact that I was about three quarters of the way through Never Fall Down when I stopped and thought to myself that this book might not be a novel after all, and that I better do some Googling and get my facts straight to find out exactly what it was that I was reading. What I discovered was that much like Katherine Boo’s National Book Award winning title Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Patricia McCormick’s book is also a work of narrative non-fiction.
In fairness I do need to mention that the book opens with some descriptive text about Arn Chorn-Pond being eleven years old when the Khmer Rouge regime took power in Cambodia, but for whatever reason my brain somehow translated that information into: here’s a fictional tale about a young boy set in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power in mid-seventies Cambodia, enjoy!
Knowing that this was a true story also helped clear up my one gripe with the book, mainly that it’s told in first person through the use of broken English, which I found off-putting if not a tad offensive. Understanding now that McCormick was attempting to recreate Chorn-Pond’s story in his own words after conducting numerous interviews with him and having exhaustive conversations with those who know him, I can better appreciate her attempt at staying true to her subject’s thoughts and emotions as he remembers experiencing them.
Overall Never Fall Down is a deeply affecting story about a childhood stolen by the ravages of war as much as it is an inspiring an uplifting tale of one youth who rose above the violence, both perpetrated by and against him, to make something greater and far more meaningful of his existence. It pulls no punches while taking readers through an unflinching look at the horrors of living smack in the middle of a war-torn country where individuals are worked to the bone, pushed to the point of exhaustion, and struggle just to survive from one day to the next.
The book’s opening chapters, which feature Chorn-Pond as a naïve, scared child, tend to read a bit on the tedious side and possess a quality of sameness. It’s only after he’s forced to accept the realities of his situation and comes to truly understand what he must endure if he wants to stay alive, and the decisions he made to do just that, that he becomes a much more layered subject.
It’s interesting that this particular book found its way onto the list of finalists for this year’s National Book Award in Young People’s Literature. I wouldn’t have expected something this gritty and realistic to aimed at a younger demographic. It’s certainly not written for six year-olds, but at the same time I’m not sure how comfortable I’d be handing it to a twelve year-old to read.
Then again the majority of those same kids in both age groups are probably well versed in the 472 different ways you can extinguish someone’s life force when playing Call of Duty XIXXI: Black Ops 14: Kill Everything that Moves.
Never Fall Down
By Patricia McCormick
Balzer + Bray