I went into reading Patricia McCormick’s “Never Fall Down” hoping to find ways to dislike it (McCormick and I were both finalists for the National Book Award, and I guess I was feeling competitive). A book about the Killing Fields, with a blurb by Archbishop Desmond Tutu? I was ready for guilty manipulations and pat battlefield epiphanies. Instead I got a moving, intimate and gritty retelling of a real boy’s (Arn Chorn-Pond) experience of being pressed into military service by the Khmer Rouge. A veteran journalist and poetic writer, McCormick knows to keep her story grounded in specific, vivid detail, especially at her novel’s most harrowing moments: Sometime screaming, too, and then we hear the crack, like splitting coconut. After that, quiet. Small sound, cracking the skull.
“Never Fall Down” has some truly unexpected elements, too—surprise friendships, hardship in the—gasp—Western World, and even a sudden page about monkeys that left me tearstruck (you’ll know what I mean once you get there). As an empathetic and imaginative and courageous act of writing, “Never Fall Down” is among the best out there, in this or any year.