Never Fall Down Summary

Patricia McCormick

Never Fall Down

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

Never Fall Down Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick.

Never Fall Down is a 2012 young adult novel by Patricia McCormick. The book is a fictionalized account of the real-life experiences of Arn Chorn Pond, a Cambodian human rights activist who survived the brutal Khmer Rouge regime as a child. McCormick wrote the novel, which is narrated from Arn’s point of view, after conducting many interviews with Pond and traveling to Cambodia to retrace her protagonist’s steps through the infamous “Killing Fields.” The novel was highly praised by critics and nominated for a National Book Award in 2012.

In April 1975, Arn Chorn is nine years old and living with his aunt and five siblings in the town of Battambang, Cambodia. Although his family used to own a successful opera company, they have fallen on hard times since Arn’s father was killed in a motorcycle accident. His mother goes to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, to earn money singing while the children stay with their aunt. A carefree boy, Arn enjoys music and dance, selling ice cream in his neighborhood, and sneaking into movies with his brother.

The Khmer Rouge, an extremist Communist regime, had just come to power after achieving victory in the Cambodian Civil War. Arn describes the Khmer Rouge as peasants in “black pajamas.” Members of the group come to Battambang and execute government soldiers who fought against them in the war, as well as anyone who is educated or wealthy. One day, the Khmer Rouge round up all the town’s residents and relocates them to the countryside, under the pretense that American planes are coming to bomb the villages. During the long walk to the countryside, many people die of starvation or are killed. Many are forced to leave their prized possessions in the road. After three days of marching, the townspeople finally arrive at a work camp. There, Arn is separated from his family and taken to another camp for children.

At the camp, Arn and the other prisoners work from dawn to dusk in the blistering heat of the rice paddies. Everyone must wear a black uniform, and no one is allowed any personal possessions. All of the prisoners refer to each other as “Comrade.” The year is Zero, everyone is equal, and food is scarce. In the evenings after work, the prisoners must sit through indoctrination meetings conducted by the Khmer Rouge. They are encouraged to forget about their families and to see the Angka, or leaders of the Khmer Rouge, as their new family.

The living conditions in the camp are horrifying. There are maggots in the latrines and stained, dirty sheets on the beds. Arn witnesses many atrocities while living in the camp. Many children starve to death because of the lack of food. Khmer Rouge leaders also execute prisoners who disobey their rules by chopping them in the back of their heads with a small axe or slicing out their insides with a bayonet. As the dead bodies pile up, Arn is ordered to push the corpses into a ditch. Although disgusted by this chore, he obeys orders. He discovers that some of the executed prisoners are not quite dead, but is ordered to push them into the grave anyway. Arn is horrified to see a starving boy chewing on the arm of a corpse.

While at the camp, Arn must also deal with the sexual advances of an older Khmer Rouge girl and is repeatedly raped by her. One day, Khmer Rouge leaders ask the prisoners if anyone knows how to play an instrument. Although he has never played a single note in his life, Arn immediately volunteers for the task in order to escape the hard labor of the rice fields. An elderly musician teaches Arn to play revolutionary Khmer Rouge songs on the khim, a traditional Cambodian stringed instrument played with a bamboo stick. Arn must learn the songs in five days. The music instructor tells him that he will be killed as soon as he finishes teaching Arn the songs, because the Khmer Rouge doesn’t want anyone else to know them. Sure enough, when Arn has learned how to play the khim, the music teacher leaves and does not come back.

Arn joins a musical band with other children, Kha and Siv, and a former Khmer Rouge soldier named Sombo. He is mentored by another music teacher named Mek, with whom he grows very close. The band is instructed to play revolutionary music in the “Killing Fields” to cover up the sound of the Khmer Rouge executing their victims. This activity saves Arn’s life, but he is disturbed by his increasingly complicit role in the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities. Meanwhile, the country is at war with neighboring Vietnam. When the Vietnamese army invades the Cambodian countryside, Arn is given a gun and told to help defend the camp. He obeys and fights alongside the Khmer Rouge, killing many Vietnamese soldiers.

In the midst of the war, Arn manages to escape the country and flee to a refugee camp in Thailand. There, he meets an American pastor named Peter Pond, who offers to adopt him and bring him to America. Arn is adopted by Pond and his wife, Shirley, and journeys to America with his parents and eleven new siblings, all Cambodian orphans that the Ponds adopted. The novel ends with Arn adjusting to his new life in America and attending high school in New Hampshire. He eventually becomes a human rights activist and founds Cambodian Living Arts, a nonprofit organization that seeks to revive the traditional music and performing arts of Cambodia.

Never Fall Down has been praised for its realistic, gut-wrenching portrayal of the Cambodian genocide and its attempt to educate young readers about world history. The main themes of the novel are resilience, violence, morality, redemption, and healing. Throughout the book, Arn survives his grueling circumstances mainly because he is adaptable, following his aunt’s advice to “bend low” in the breeze, like the grass, whenever the wind is blowing. In the process, however, he must often act against his own conscience and risk becoming the enemy that he hates.