22 Oct / Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick
I admit I had a few false starts before I finally settled into Patricia McCormick‘s latest, which was a 2012 National Book Award finalist for Young People’s Literature. Based on the horrifying experiences of Cambodian activist/humanitarian Arn Chorn-Pond’s childhood survival during the brutal Khmer Rouge control of his native country, McCormick “wrote his story as a novel.” She explains in her ending “Author’s Note,” “Like all trauma survivors, Arn can recall certain experiences in chilling detail; others he can tell only in vague generalities. … So I added to his recollections with my own research – and my own imagination – to fill in the missing pieces. The truth, I believe, is right there between the lines.”
With such careful creation, why did I need three attempts to finally finish? On the page, the sentences read jarringly in broken English; in the ears, the effect is even more pronounced as Ramon de Ocampo narrates in an initially grating, undefinable, pseudo-Asian accent. Might I (highly) recommend skipping forward to that ending “Author’s Note”: McCormick clarifies, “Trying to capture [Arn’s] voice was like trying to bottle a lightning bug. Every time I imposed the rules of grammar or syntax on it, the lights went out. And so, in telling Arn’s story I chose to use his own distinct and beautiful voice.” That explanation sent me searching for that voice … and I found this video of writer and subject together. Their interaction convinced me I absolutely needed to finish the book: all frustration and hesitation disappeared by the final page.
In a devastating world tragedy that took the lives of almost a quarter of a country’s entire population, Arn witnesses the most heinous crimes and tragedies; he is just 11 when the Khmer Rouge begins the devastation of Cambodia. He loses most of his family, his friends, his hopes, his beliefs. He’s forced to commit indescribable acts as a child soldier, numbing his heart and mind in order to live to the next day. Miraculously, he reclaims his own humanity to become an outspoken champion of the world.
McCormick has built her lauded literary reputation on giving voice to young people facing the most challenging circumstances – from addiction to slavery to war to genocide (her first National Book Award finalist, Sold, is revelatory). McCormick’s next title – her first co-writing credit – is due out in August 2014, and is already making headlines: I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World. Sight unseen, I’m already practicing chants of ‘NBA, all the way.’
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult