'Never Fall Down': Surviving The Killing Fields Patricia McCormick's new young adult novel tells the story of Arn Chorn-Pond, a real-life survivor of the Cambodian genocide whose musical skills kept him alive.

'Never Fall Down': Surviving The Killing Fields

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Patricia McCormick's new novel for young adults, "Never Fall Down," is set in Cambodia during the time of the Khmer Rouge. Arn, the narrator, is an 11-year-old boy when the Khmer Rouge come to his village, where he grew up singing rock 'n' roll and eating ice cream. He's sent to a labor camp where other children all around him disappear in the killing fields, as they come to be called.

There is just no nice way to describe a genocide. "Never Fall Down" is based on the true life of Arn Chorn-Pond. It's written by Patricia McCormick. She is the best-selling author of the book "Sold" about child trafficking, which was a National Book Award finalist. Patricia McCormick and Arn Chorn-Pond join us from our studios in New York. Thanks for being with us.

ARN CHORN-POND: Thank you.

PATRICIA MCCORMICK: Thanks for having us.

SIMON: And, of course, let's be clear: this is ultimately a novel. It's a book of fiction but it based on your life, Mr. Pond.


SIMON: Patricia McCormick, what moved you to tell his story?

MCCORMICK: Arn was introduced to me by a neighbor in my apartment building in New York City and we instantly took a liking to each other. I could see that Arn had a lot of charisma and a fire to tell his story. The idea of creating a book, which is a lasting record of that story, was something I felt that Arn needed to get that story out more widely.

SIMON: Arn, the story of survival in a sense begins when you realize that if you could learn to play music maybe you could save your life.


SIMON: Could you tell us that story? You picked up the khim, is that it?

CHORN-POND: Yeah, K-H-I-M. It's like a dulcimer. I did not know how to play at all during the Khmer Rouge time. But I knew if I raise my hand - I mean, I couldn't believe in the middle of all of the killing around me. They ask us to play the revolutionary songs for them. So I raise my hand to be a musician, to play and they gave me more food and I started with five other kids.

And three kids didn't succeed playing; they were playing slower than us and ended up in the mango grove. And also my first teachers were also killed and lucky enough they didn't ask me to do it because usually the Khmer Rouge played games with the dead. You know, they would test us, whether I'm brave enough to kill my teacher.

When I played for them, they wanted to kill me but they didn't because I played music for them. So I played very hard and I was really good at it.

SIMON: Let's get plain about this too. They had you play the music for a very specific reason, didn't they?

CHORN-POND: Sometimes. I notice is that while they are killing people and they don't want to hear the scream, that's why they put the microphone in the khim. So they can hear the music instead.

SIMON: I want to get you, Patricia McCormick, to read a section from this book and I'm pointedly going to ask you instead of Arn just because this is such rough stuff. And we want to let our listeners know there's not a single profanity, per se, in it but this is just very rough to listen to. This is a section, Patricia McCormick, where the narrator describes the nightmare world into which he's been plunged in a Khmer Rouge work camp.

MCCORMICK: (Reading) It's a long wooden building where we sleep. Row and row of kids all feet facing in, sleeping on straw mat. One building for the girl, one building for the boy. A kid like me, 11 years old, I'm a little bit older than the kid in my building so the Khmer Rouge say I'm in charge. You teach these kids to love the Unka, they tell me, and you tell us if they have poor character.

No grown-up around, so we do all the work, digging with only our hand, pulling the plow like ox, pounding the rice, everything. The kid who don't work hard, sometime they get sent to another place called the Lazy Village and we don't see them again. One time I hear a kid ask where is his sister. The Khmer Rouge only laugh and say she still working in the field. Only now she's fertilizer.

SIMON: Patricia McCormick, why was it important to you to make this a novel for young adults?

MCCORMICK: Well, you know, I think young adults get a bad rap for being self-absorbed and self-centered. My experience going around the United States and speaking in schools is that teenagers here are very interested in the fate of their peers around the world. And I think because of the Internet they feel much more empowered to do something about those situations. They're deeply compassionate. And I think it allows them to see that their lives are endurable and it gives them inspiration and courage when they see kids like themselves under extraordinary circumstances surviving.

SIMON: And, boy, Mr. Pond, you do endure, don't you?

CHORN-POND: Yeah. I felt very old. I feel I surpass a lot of lives, you know? But every day I never thought I would have another day to help other young people, to help the world. But I think also American kids and I start open my mouth and share my story. They really cared about it. So I really would like to encourage other survivors to really also start sharing if they want to. But if I don't share they're not going to share their story, so someone has to take the first step.

SIMON: Arn, at one point you had to become a soldier, didn't you?

CHORN-POND: Yeah. When the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979, and I was caught with thousands of other children who I think tall enough just to carried guns, and if you don't take the gun there I saw the commander shoot kids.

SIMON: In the book the narrator kills somebody. Is that you, Arn?

CHORN-POND: Yes, in the war, of course. Of course. Of course. Of course. You don't kill them, they kill you. That's the game you play; you don't shoot them, they shoot you. I know it was wrong but I was put into that situation. I was 12 years old this time. So it's life-and-death situation for you. You starve to death or you shot to death. So many things that I have to decide; I want to live or I want to die.

SIMON: You know what, Arn Chorn-Pond, I think anybody listening to our conversation just might wonder how do you, how do you go on living after what you endured?

CHORN-POND: Yeah, I still have nightmares, but less now. Always emotional for me but I learn how to cry now. I've learned how to cry because people teach me how to share my story and I begin to really feel what I said, I mean, to Patty and she said you can cry. I'll be here for you, so people are not giving up on me.

SIMON: I wonder, Arn?


SIMON: Did you bring your flute?


SIMON: I wonder, is it possible to play the flute?


SIMON: I think we'd like to hear that.


SIMON: Arn Chorn-Pond and Patricia McCormick, their new book, "Never Fall Down" is available now.

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