Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick was certainly a confronting and challenging start to bookclub. The general feeling was that this was a difficult but powerful read. We began by discussing what we collectively knew about the Cambodian “killing fields” and the relevance of this to Australia’s geographical area. We had varying levels of knowledge and some of us found that although we knew of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge and the killing fields – we were a little sketchy on the detail; which to some extent is surprising given that the genocide occurred during our own lifetimes. It made us aware that we do live in a little isolated bubble here quite safe in Australia away from troubles elsewhere in the world.
It was commented that we teach the Holocaust and the Chinese Cultural Revolution in quite detail yet there are other genocides such as those in Rwanda, Cambodia, Armenia, Bosnia and Darfur that do not get the same attention. Some schools offer school trips to Cambodia and we felt that it would be great background reading, particularly for the teachers who are supervising the trip. Many of us were inspired to do some extra reading into the war to supplement our own knowledge of events. We noted the dislocation and fragmentation that occurred in this society once the Khmer Rouge take over, “They [the Khmer Rouge] kill everyone who used to be rich or high ranking.” (p29) and related their methods to those employed in other ‘peasant’ revolutions such as in Russia and China. It is quite staggering to consider the many millions of people murdered during the last century at the hands of their own people in a variety of countries.
We spent some time discussing the unique narrative voice. For some readers the boy’s simplistic, uncluttered narration made the novel work for them; for others, they found it difficult to read at first until they picked up the speech rhythms and for a few it did not work at all. It was commented that it was a very authentic representation of the way a person who has English as a second language speaks. In some ways it was quite disconcerting to have this innocent, child narrator reveal scenes of abject horror and we felt there was a deliberate dissonance between what was transpiring with how it was reported. The impact on the reader was quite unsettling.
Some of us were disappointed that it was written as a novelised account rather than published as a memoir or biography and felt that this detracted from the reading experience by introducing an element of doubt as to the accuracy of the events. For others this did not impact upon their reading experience. We wondered though why McCormick would choose this format rather than publish this as “a memoir as told to the author”. This led to some discussion about the differences between non-fiction novels (faction?) and biography. We mentioned some works in the past such as Forbidden Love by Norma Khouri, The Hand that Signed the Paper by Helen Demidenko and A Million Little Pieces by James Frey and others that were published as truthful accounts that later turned out to be works of imagination. We also debated the merits of writing about real people, in novels such as All That I Am by Anna Funder, and taking poetic licence to change actual events and relationships.
Several themes that we felt ran throughout the narrative were the restorative power of music, the will to survive and maintaining faith in humanity. Music is a central focus of this novel; if it were not for Arn’s ability to quickly learn how to master the khim he may not have survived the war. It was noted that music ability obviously ran in his family who were theatre and opera performers. We were curious as to what happened to his mother, who had gone away to the opera, who was still alive at the beginning of the novel but never mentioned again. We talked for some time about the power of music, and the influence of teachers of music, to change lives. A significant image that we could not forget from the novel was the idea of the little boys playing the music over and over for hours to drown out the sounds of torture and execution. We were reminded of the memories of Holocaust survivors who relate that they were met at the train station at concentration camps by string quartets and lulled into a false sense of security. We were touched by the music teacher who taught the flute to Arn and relieved to find out that he had survived the war.
The ability to survive atrocities was a theme we talked about at length – some of us just know that we would not survive very long in those circumstances! This led to a discussion about the overwhelming desire to survive that is apparent in some individuals. We could not decide if some individuals are lucky or just born with a more developed sense of self-preservation than others. We were struck by Arn’s ability to withstand horrific conditions but still, in his darkest moment, pull on the leg of his American saviour to draw attention to himself. Arn would not have survived, however, without the help of others and we discussed the assistance he received from Sombo (and the great risk he took to do this), his music teacher and finally his foster family. The overwhelming feeling was that even under the most brutal circumstances there are still glimpses of humanity and kindness – which did leave us with some sense of hope. We also compared this story with other stories we had read that showed extraordinary examples of selflessness, courage and bravery under adverse situations. In interviews Arn states that he believes he survived so that he could be a witness to the world about what happened:
Children are simple. You teach them love, they grow up with love. If you teach them war, they only grow up making war,” he said. “I want to touch children with love, not war. I know both sides. War is only lose, lose. Peace, compassion, love, I think it’s win, win. Everyone wins. I want to make that popular. I feel so good making peace, and start caring about other people.
We also touched on the concept of “survivor guilt” and the great difficulties that Arn experienced when he was relocated to the United States. Although he had a great desire to escape we noted that often for refugees their relocation to a new country and culture creates a whole new set of different challenges and struggles for them to overcome. With the issues of asylum and refugees and our international and social justice obligations constantly in the news in Australia we felt that this novel could open up a range of discussion on this issue.
With regard to classroom applications we were unanimous in feeling that this is a novel that is really only appropriate to year 11 and 12, particularly for modern history students, or perhaps at the end of year 10. Even though it is deceptively easy to read and simplistic in tone the content matter is too graphic and shocking to expose to younger students.