In a Rocket Made of Ice: the Story of Wat Opot, a Visionary Community for Children Growing Up with AIDS by Gail Gutradt.
My edition Vintage Books, Penguin Random House, New York, 2015 (originally published 2013).
Nonfiction/memoir, 322 pages.
Traveling retiree Gail Gutradt made a chance connection that sent her to volunteer in this community with an initial five-month commitment. The experience was so moving that she returns again and again, finding a deep love for Cambodia and a personal passion for improving the lives of children affected by HIV/AIDs.
Notice I say “children affected by”, not “children with”, because that’s one of the interesting parts about Wat Opot – the community is open to any children and many adults whose lives have been affected, whether they themselves are positive, a sibling or parent is, or if one or both parents have died from AIDs. That’s an important aspect of this community surviving in Cambodia, where family connections are crucial – families can stay together, dying parents can know that their children are well cared for and gently transition them, and siblings are not separated based on HIV status.
The writing style is unusual. Gutradt uses short chapters, most broken up into even shorter scenes and some chapters as brief as a single page. Individual chapters read almost like short stories or self-contained essays, which leads to frequent repetition.
This book had a lengthy disclaimer apologizing for any errors. Black and white photographs are sprinkled throughout the text (ranging from small pictures to double page spreads) but not captioned by deliberate choice.
Originally, Gutradt wrote using real names of the people she encountered. But she was concerned the children might face discrimination or ostracization if their status was publicly disclosed, especially those who now live outside of the community. She also rightly acknowledges that disclosing HIV status is a personal decision and not hers to make.
As part of that choice, she also decided to rename the survivors and discusses the process of choosing ethnically appropriate but also memorable and easy for Western readers to pronounce names. The community itself includes both positive and negative children, and Gutradt also writes occasionally about village children. The uncaptioned photographs could thus theoretically be of any child.
This book is not without flaws. Her evocative way of pulling you into a time and place occasionally descends into purple prose. Beyond the writing style, Gutradt approaches the subject from her own Western perspective. She tries to see other viewpoints, and point out her own errors, but her reading of Cambodian culture can feel awkward and colonized. Gutradt only visited Wat Opot during the dry season, so her white, outsider perspective is even more limited.
Two moments stood out – when an incident with Barbies is used to try and comment on Cambodian colorism but unintentionally says more about the author’s home country. The second is more nuanced – a young boy hits a child the author recently connected with and she reacts with physical, verbal, and mental anger. Though both are at fault (and her more so, since she is a capable adult and he a traumatized child), he comes to her and apologizes. Later discussion with a friend points out to her the extreme power imbalance that guided his choice.
I was surprised this incident was included, since most authors would have written out an event where they were so clearly in the wrong. But I’m grateful Gutradt was brave enough to discuss, because incidents like this (or much worse) do occur, and only by acknowledging error can we discuss ways to improve and prepare volunteers to better handle when those emotions arise.
The local religion in the area is Buddhism, although Hinduism is occasionally mentioned. Both project director Wayne and Rebecca, another prominent volunteer, are Christians who eventually butt heads over the idea of proselytizing to the residents. The author is Jewish and fascinated by the blended worship practiced at evening remembrances.
Gutradt had quite a bit of openness with Wayne, and discusses in detail the finances, methods of management, and allocation of funds. He breaks down difficult decisions for her, including some where he made what she felt was the wrong choice, or others where there simply was no good choice. Readers interested in international volunteer work or non-profit organizations could learn a lot from this book, and book clubs would have a lot to discuss.
Despite the flaws, I’m still glad I read this book. Cambodia is a country I knew little about, and the little was mostly to do with the Khmer Rouge in the past and the trafficking horrors of the present day. Although this can’t be considered a happy book, the overall tone is positive. Horrible things are discussed and Gutradt does not shy away from deaths or worse, but in the end this is a book about children surviving who were never expected to live, getting an education better even than their peers, and mostly moving towards better lives.