You think you never can get used to a thing this sad, kid dying, but you do. You think maybe you want to die also. But you don’t. You not living. And you not dead. You living dead.
This YA novel, nominated for a National Book Award this year, is a fictionalized account of the life of Arn Chorn-Pond, a real person who survived the killing fields of Cambodia. Arn was 11 when the Khmer Rouge came to power. His family, like all the others in his town, was forced out of its home, separated and put to work in rice fields under brutal, inhuman, often deadly conditions. Some 2 million Cambodians died under Khmer Rouge oppression. Arn’s story is both painful and powerful. The author worked with him in telling it and uses his voice (including grammar and syntax) to bring it to life. Despite the fact that this is youth lit, McCormick does not flinch from vividly depicting the horrors of the labor camps. Yet she also captures Arn’s compassion, intelligence and the strength that helped him to survive and then learn how to live again.
Arn was the sort of kid who just seemed lucky or perhaps had always been street savvy or world-wise. As a child before the war, he managed to get extra money for himself and his family by selling ice cream and gambling. He kept himself alive in the camps by learning to play an instrument and mastering songs that the band played to entertain the Khmer Rouge elite as well to cover up the sounds of death at the work camps. He marvels at his own unusual luck while he sees others dying horrible deaths, and like the other children, he learns not to show any emotion about it because to do so meant certain death for yourself. But Arn never lost his compassion. He tried hard to protect other kids and some of the adults around him.
The years of the Khmer Rouge regime brought death every day. Arn saw children fall down in the fields and never get up again. He saw prisoners brutally put to death by an axe blow to the skull and then he had to help push the bodies into burial pits. He saw Khmer Rouge slice the livers out of prisoners and eat them. He learns that even members of the Khmer Rouge live in fear because they could be denounced at any moment. Arn also learns that he is capable of killing. By the time the Khmer Rouge have fallen, Arn is about 15. He has found his way to Thailand and a hospital/orphanage for Cambodian children, and there he meets an American who takes him and others back to the US. But Arn still must come to grips with the killing fields and the horrors he endured, the horrible things he had to do to survive. The description of his first experience in the US as a high school student, taunted both by the white American students and by other Cambodians, is absolutely heartbreaking. But the story of how Arn uses his story to educate others and learn to live again is simply beautiful and brought me to tears.
Today, Arn is known not just for his story but for the great works he has done on behalf of children in war-torn nations, especially in Cambodia. While the details of the killing fields may be hard for teens to hear (they were hard for me and I’m 48 and have a background in Soviet history), imagine how hard it must have been for a child to live them. This is an outstanding book that educates the reader about a shocking and brutal episode in 20th century history, but also demonstrates the amazing resilience and indomitable spirit of one person who came through it. McCormick, whose previous works have likewise been nominated for National Book Awards and other prizes, does a masterful job of presenting this story in a way that is suitable for a younger reader without pandering or watering down the material. It is a great novel period. Read it.