The National Book Awards Gala is coming up this Wednesday and one of the finalists in the Young People’s Literature category is Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick. It is a novel based on the real life of Arn Chorn-Pond—a man who survived unspeakable horrors in the labor camps of the Khmer Rouge as a boy, escaped as a soldier, and was later adopted and brought to the United States. This is a story of brutality, but ultimately it’s an inspiring story of how the arts can save a life, and how the resilience of the human spirit can shine even in the darkest of times.
Photo by Roberto Ligresti
In her brief introduction, Patty writes:
Nearly two million people died—one quarter of the population. It is the worst genocide ever inflicted by a country on its own people.I used this quote often in my pitching because when I’d first read it, it shocked me…and I knew it would shock others. It did. What I learned from the many journalists and producers I spoke with is that a lot of people don't know these facts. This doesn't altogether surprise me as the Cambodian genocide is not a piece of history that is widely taught or discussed. Cambodians themselves would prefer to avoid their terrible past. When Patty and I discussed the history and the current relevance, she wrote me the following for background and context:
“Cambodians generally share a great reluctance to discuss the genocide. The prime minister, himself a former Khmer Rouge, has suggested that the country ‘dig a hole’ and bury the past. As a result, survivors’ accounts are rarely shared with the next generation—but those kids become infused with their parents’ PTSD. The home environment is rife with shame, anger, fear, denial, etc. and all the classic PTSD behaviors—substance abuse, domestic abuse etc. But the children don’t know why. The war crimes tribunals, going on now, have led children to ask their parents about their stories. And this book, to be published in Khmer, will be the first survivor account of its kind and will be distributed in schools. This is how a national conversation will begin.”
Photo from the documentary
The Flute Player
Courtesy of Jocelyn Glatzer
From the moment I read the first manuscript pages of Never Fall Down, I knew I had something really special and potentially groundbreaking in my hands. It became a passion project for me and the book that I championed to everyone I knew and to anyone who would listen. Patty's writing captivated me and Arn's story broke my heart. I couldn't fathom how I'd lived so long not knowing the history of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge, and I wondered how my education could have omitted something so tremendously horrific.
My early excitement was justly validated when it received five starred reviews and amazing national media attention, including a powerful interview on NPR’s “Weekend Edition” with a conversation between Patty, Arn, and host Scott Simon. In all honestly, I can say that there was not a dry eye in the room during taping. After the interview, Scott Simon tweeted, “Just finished interviewing PMcCormick & Arn Chorn-Pond on YA novel of Khmer Rouge, Never Fall Down. Devastating in all ways, but especially the abiding sheer endurance of Arn's human spirit. He lived through a genocide, and values joy all the more…So moving, inspiring.”
To write the book, Patty traveled to Cambodia with Arn, saw the camps where he was held, met people from his childhood, and interviewed him for hundreds of hours. In the end, she decided to write this novel in his beautiful imperfect English, since as Patty says in her author’s note, trying to channel Arn’s voice was like trying to “bottle a lightning bug.” It is a decision that has been somewhat polarizing among readers and reviewers, but one that I defend and support unwaveringly. Meghan Cox Gurdon of The Wall Street Journal agreed, writing in her review, “Throughout his ordeal, as Arn turns from captive to child soldier to refugee, he speaks in the imperfect cadences of the English he only learned years later. It's a wise narrative choice: Telling Arn's story this way creates a sense of foreignness that feels right, and gives rise to the accidental poetry of faulty translation.” I watched a lot of video of Arn before reading the book as I tried to familiarize myself with him and his story. When I finally began reading the manuscript, I found myself constantly flipping to the title page, thinking, "Who wrote this? Arn?" Considering how much time they spent and still spend together, it really shouldn't surprise me that Patty captured his voices so beautifully. If you watch Patty and Arn in this video, you can see the love and the trust between them.
In a recent Q&A with EW.com, the interviewer asked for Patty’s reaction to being chosen as a National Book Award Finalist. Her response, eloquent as always, drives to the heart of the matter: “It’s meaningful for this book because it needs that seal of approval for some more cautious readers, people who wouldn’t necessarily be interested in reading a book like this. It validates storytelling as a way of healing. This is all about how Arn healed by revealing the worst things about his past. We all have these stories to tell and by telling them we will free ourselves.”
But perhaps the sentiment that I return to again and again, the one that can sum up this entire emotional experience of working on this campaign, and with Patty and Arn, is the one from Susan Carpenter of the Los Angeles Times. She wrote, “By turns terrifying, heartbreaking and triumphant, ‘Never Fall Down’ is as likely to inspire tears as it is to stick with readers for a lifetime.”