Beware, this book is not for the timid.
Arn Chorn Pond began his life as an ordinary kid growing up in a village in Cambodia. This is his story. I listened to it as an audiobook. I don't know if it would be easier to have read it, but I am certain that the cadence of language would not have been as profound. It felt as though Arn was telling his story directly to me. It is a harsh tale to attend to.
Generally I like historical fiction. I like learning about the past through the lives of fictional characters. I certainly learned a lot as I read this book. However Arn is not a fictional character. He is a real person. I wish with all my heart it wasn't true, but it is.
I had heard of the killing fields of Cambodia, but avoided reading the details. It was enough to know that the Khmer Rouge were responsible for at a minimum, the deaths of two million people.
I had no idea what I was getting into when I picked up this book. It starts out so sweetly with Arn talking about the time before war with his Aunt, his brother and his three sisters. It wasn't idyllic, they were poor, but it is akin to the kind of childhood I had as a kid.
Arn was 10 years old when the Khmer Rouge invaded his village. Bit by bit his ordinary life disintegrated. Within a few months he was separated from his family and forced to work
long hours in rice fields with other kids his age. They either
died a bit each day from starvation, or the Khmer Rouge came up with new
ways to evaluate and kill them instantly.
Arn was forced to live with torture and death on an ongoing basis. He learned to become blind, deaf, and numb to it all. He
survived because he was able to learn to play music. Even that was embedded with terror. I can't imagine the horror
of performing music day in and day out that is played over loudspeakers in an attempt to drown
out the sounds of killing and torture.
More times than I can remember I pulled my ear buds out because I couldn't listen anymore. Yet as Arn's narrative progressed, I was compelled to continue. I told myself, if he could live through this, I can listen to his story and bear witness to what he endured. Maybe I just wanted to know that he survived.
He ended up becoming a child soldier before making his way to Thailand.
This is a story of war, but it highlights of the power of relationship and caring. At the same time as it reveals the darkest human actions, it is also a story about redemption.
I couldn't help but make connections to another book, A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah, the story of a child soldier from Africa.
Then I wondered if we will ever get to read the story of our own Canadian child soldier, Omar Khadr. I suspect that if more people could read these kinds of narratives, we might be treating him very differently.
This book is gonna haunt me for a long time.