Saturday, May 19, 2012

Never Fall Down

Never Fall Down, a breathtaking young adult novel by author Patricia McCormick, is about a boy named Arn, the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide. It is based on the true story of Arm Chorn-Pond, who, through intelligence, will, good luck, and the art of music survived.

The review of this novel in the NY Times, by Seth Mydans, a former foreign correspondent, tells us why this book is important. One reason is that the history of the killing fields in Cambodia has been kept from Cambodian school children until recently. Also, today, Cambodian parents who try to relate the atrocities that began in the mid- seventies find their children don't believe them. This novel is for everyone, young adult or older, but especially for Cambodians. The details of this culture of killing would be  impossible to read, were it not for the resilience and hope in Arn's story.

At a time in America when it often feels there isn't enough money or time for music in our schools, I loved reading a story about a boy whose life is saved repeatedly because of his ability to play music.  The novel begins by stating the importance of music in 1975 in Cambodia:

At night in our town, it's music everywhere, Rich House. Poor house. Doesn't matter. Everyone has music. Radio, Record player. Eight-track cassette. Even the guys who pedal the rickshaw cycle, they tie a tiny radio to the handle-bar and sign for the passenger. In my town, music is like air, always there.

But then the Khmer Rouge takes over. Arn tells us of a high ranking official at a meeting:

 . . . he take money from his pocket and rip it into shred. . . . "No need for money now," he says. "No school, no store, no mail, no religion . . . No thing from the American, from the imperialist. In Cambodia, now it's Year Zero."

The Khmer Rouge wipes out the past and the culture, but not quite, not totally.

Even Khmer Rouge soldiers, who have seemingly lost their souls, need music, and Arn is recruited to play a traditional instrument, the khim, in a band. One purpose of the band is to drown out the sound of the killing, the sound of hatchets striking heads. He practices arduously, sensing that this will allow him to survive. Because of Arn's will and ability to learn this stringed instrument, he becomes "A little famous" and his life is always spared.

Unfortunately during the genocide years, much of the traditional music was not allowed by the Khmer Rouge and had become nearly extinct. To prevent this, in 1998, Arn Chorn-Pond founded Cambodian Living Arts.  Through that organization, Cambodian children are taught traditional music that, were it not for this man and this organization, would have been lost to future generations.

I can think of no better testament to the arts or the human spirit than this inspiring novel. It's a must read.

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