Never Fall Down

Never Fall Down

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Harper Collins/Balzer & Bray January
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“With their hearts they turned to each other’s heart for refuge” -- Jackson Browne, “Before the Deluge”

“The Khmer Rouge, they want the name, the background of everyone here. But the Khmer Rouge themself, they all the same. All black uniform. All grim face. All name ‘Comrade.’ Comrade Soldier. Comrade Elder. Comrade Cook. “In my mind, I give them names. The one who steal is Comrade Wristwatch. And the one who all day clean the nails I call Comrade Lazy. “But they only say ‘Comrade’ this and ‘Comrade’ that. Because they don’ t want us to know the real name.

“Every day now, we all work in the field. Planting, digging ditch, hard work and in the sun. Everyone. Children, old people, everyone work together. Only time to rest is to use the latrine, maybe to get water from the stream. One time, when I take Munny to the bush to pee, I see, in the wood, big pile of dirt. A pile tall as a house. Fresh, like just dug. And not a good smell. Sweet and also like rot. Like nothing I ever smell before.”

Five years ago, I wrote about Gary Schmidt’s then-upcoming novel TROUBLE, a piece of historical fiction set in 1980s north-coastal Massachusetts. TROUBLE remains one of my personal all-time favorite reads. The second most-central character in TROUBLE is Chay Chouan, a young man who survived the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge and has ended up in a nearby Massachusetts mill-town immigrant community. He carries the memory of witnessing his sister being shot in front of him and his brother being taken by force. In TROUBLE we get a sense of what it might have been like for Chay in Cambodia. Here in NEVER FALL DOWN, one of this year’s National Book Award finalists, we get the full-fledged real deal: a work of fiction based on and told through the eyes of Arn Chorn-Pond, a real-life survivor who was an eleven year-old in Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975.

Through Arn’ s eyes, we are plopped down amidst the unspeakable massacre that went on and on there for years. Fortunately, the tale is somewhat leavened by Arn’s being a mischievous and kind kid at heart – even if he has to hide/scab over/grow out of that part of himself in order to survive. As we learn from Arn, who ends up for a time as a favored musician for Khmer Rouge leaders, you have to either keep on keeping on, or figure on becoming part of the ever-growing pile of body parts: “One old man digging a ditch, he fall down. He cry and say he’s too old for this hard work. A Khmer Rouge come to him, says, ‘You tired of working? Okay. We take you someplace you can rest.’ “Never again we see that old guy.

But the dirt pile, it get bigger all the time. Bigger and worse smell. Like rot. And also like some kinda gas. And flies all over. That pile, now it’s like mountain.” And that’s nothing. This is not a story for the squeamish. When I got to page 82, I had to take a break -- my toes were all clenched up and my stomach and arm muscles knotted tight because of what had just taken place. “Now let the music keep our spirits high” -- Jackson Browne But I kept reading. Why? I don’t know. Thinking about it all begins to fry my brain. This is one of those exceptionally well-written stories that you wish had not been based upon something that has taken place in the real world. But the character Arn – who, when the story begins, is an innocent kid in a village filled with music – is a young Everyman in whose position we might (in our worst nightmare) imagine ourselves. And it is in the thoughts and actions of Arn -- the small kindnesses in the midst of unspeakably barbaric behavior around him -- that we find some hope, some salvation for humankind, and a good reason for reading this book.  224 pages  Ages 14 and up  978-0-06-173093-1

Recommended by:  Richie Partington, MLIS, Librarian, California USA

See more of his recommendations at:  Richie's Picks _http://richiespicks.com

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