I admit that if Never Fall Down wasn't a 2012 Cybils nominee (and a 2012 National Book Award finalist), it's quite likely that I'd have continued avoiding it... well, forever. I tend to avoid books that focus on the atrocities that human beings have committed (and continue to commit) on members of our own species*, even though I'm fully aware that those stories also tend to highlight some of the best things that we are capable of: courage, sacrifice, generosity, empathy, kindness, and hope.
So, yeah, a book about one boy's experiences during the rise and reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia—a period of time in which a quarter of the population was murdered by their own countrymen—is not a book I'd naturally gravitate towards. And knowing that it's a novel largely based on the real-life experiences of Arn Chorn-Pond—a human rights activist and a co-founder of Children of War and the Cambodian Living Arts—didn't make reading it any easier**.
Arn lives in Battambang, Cambodia, with his aunt, his brother and four sisters. He sneaks out of the temple school and into movies, he makes money by selling ice cream and occasionally gambling. His family used to have more money, but after their father died in a motorcycle accident, life changed.
When the Khmer Rouge takes over, that ends up being a bit of a blessing:
Three day go by and this guy never come back. The dirt pile in the woods, every day it get bigger. They don't explain, but I figure what they doing. They kill everyone who used to be rich or high ranking. Anyone with education. All the soldier, the teacher, the doctor, the musician. Anyone poor, no problem. World is upside down. Being rich now is no good. Bring poor, this can save your life.
I could go into the details of the storyline—the forced marches, the child soldiers, the starvation, the violence, the death after death after death—but I feel like this passage kind of encapsulates the horror depicted in this book:
One night the girl next to me at dinner, she dies. She dies just sitting there. No sound. Just no breathing anymore. All of us, we eat so fast, no one ever see this girl. Very quick, I take her bowl of rice and keep eating.
So often, authors write—and we read—survival stories for pure entertainment. As you may have gathered, Never Fall Down doesn't read like that: rather, it reads as testimony from someone who witnessed (and survived) something that just shouldn't be. And, as with Between Shades of Gray last year, in reading it, it makes us witnesses as well, albeit a few very large steps removed.
It's not a book that is at all comfortable to read, and it's one that plenty of people—myself included—will find it much easier to avoid than to face... but pretending that these horrors don't exist in our world only serves to help the people who commit them.
*Let's not even go into the stuff human beings have done to other species, or I'll just start crying right now. I am so scared of reading that bonobo book.
**Or, to be fair, harder. I don't tend to treat fiction and nonfiction on emotionally different levels.***
***NO, DAD, SAYING "OH, IT'S JUST A BOOK/MOVIE/SONG" IS NOT HELPFUL. (<--We've been having that argument ever since he tried to console my post-Outsiders eleven-year-old self by saying, "Oh, it's only a book. It's not real." And then, when I refused to be swayed by his so-called logic, threatened to flush the book down the toilet. That story gets trotted out on a regular basis at Ye Olde Bonfires. And probably here. Apologies to anyone who's already heard it fifty-seven times.)