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Among the Children of Wat Opot

Written by Gail GutradtAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Gail Gutradt


List Price: $12.99


On Sale: August 12, 2014
Pages: 352 | ISBN: 978-0-385-35348-9
Published by : Knopf Knopf

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A beautifully told, inspiring true story of one woman’s volunteer experiences at an orphanage in rural Cambodia—a book that embodies the belief that love, compassion, and generosity of spirit can overcome even the most fearsome of obstacles.

Gail Gutradt was at a crossroads in her life when she learned of the Wat Opot Children’s Community. Begun with just fifty dollars in the pocket of Wayne Dale Matthysse, a former Marine Corps medic in Vietnam, Wat Opot, a temple complex nestled among Cambodia’s verdant rice paddies, was once a haunted scrubland that became a place of healing and respite where children with or orphaned by HIV/AIDS could live outside of fear or judgment, and find a new family—a place that Gutradt calls “a workshop for souls.”

Disarming, funny, deeply moving, In a Rocket Made of Ice gathers the stories of children saved and changed by this very special place, and of one woman’s transformation in trying to help them. With wry perceptiveness and stunning humanity and humor, this courageous, surprising, and evocative memoir etches the people of Wat Opot forever on your heart.


chapter 1


Shhhhhh. Listen. Sita is waking the day.

Sita turns on her portable radio the moment she wakes up. She raises the volume as high as it will go, way past the point of distortion, then twists the dial back and forth searching for something that pleases her: the trailing melodies of Buddhist mantras, a marching band playing the national anthem of the Kingdom of Cambodia, karaoke tunes, monks chanting, more mantras, marching, karaoke, monks and on and on and back again.

I open my eyes. It is still dark outside, and only the dim differentiation of wall from ceiling, sky from wall, barely perceptible through the pink mosquito net, shows where my single window looks out onto the world. In the distance a rooster crows weakly, sounding cross. Is it too early for him as well?

A wandering many-­voiced chant arises from the Buddhist temple next door, the morning prayers of young and aged monks. One dog barks. From across the way another answers.

Sita is playing a Western song now with lyrics in Khmer. Her cheap speakers crackle under the strain.

A gecko begins chirping on the stucco wall.

On the porch outside my room Wayne is still a snoring mountain. His mosquito net is tucked into the black fleece blanket on his bed. Wayne says he sleeps outdoors so he can hear the children when they cry, and manages to sleep, often uneasily, through noises less urgent.

Somewhere in the children’s quarters a baby cries out from a dream and is comforted. Wayne rolls over and draws his body upright, dangling his feet over the side of the bed. He wears yesterday’s black trousers, dried mud still on the cuffs from working in the garden. The crying has stopped now so he sits quietly, wrapped in his blanket, collecting his thoughts for the day, breathing himself awake, perhaps praying. A pair of small feet drop over the other side of the bed and stumble off toward the bathrooms behind our house. Mister Phirun, at nine years old the oldest boy with AIDS, sometimes wets the bed. None of the boys wants to sleep with Phirun, so Wayne lets him crawl in with him sometimes when he is worried or lonely. Wayne wakes up often during the night and he will carry Phirun out to the yard, hold him at arm’s length to drain and return him to bed without waking him.

Wayne calls all the kids Mister or Miss, especially the very little ones who run around with no pants. It is a matter of respect for the children but also on occasion affords much-­needed comic relief, as in “Mister Vantha! Where are your shorts?”

The children begin to wander in from their various sleeping quarters, gathering near the bathrooms outside my window. They are still half asleep, most of them, and sit in dazed solitary silence on the bamboo slat bed next to the wall in the manner of small children softly awoken, holding their toothbrushes and soap and waiting their turn in the bathroom. Their towels are draped about their shoulders or dangling unconsciously from their hands. Now and then a little one nods off to sleep as he waits, and his towel drops to the ground and he draws his bare shoulders in and up against the morning dampness and hugs himself and looks even smaller than before.

Now Sita squats by the faucet outside her woven mat house and draws a little water to wash herself. She wears a worn flowered sarong hastily tucked in above her breasts, and her hair tumbles uncombed about her neck and shoulders. In spite of the radio, in spite of the insects and the chirping gecko and the whispers of children, in spite of dogs and roosters and monks chanting, the air has until this moment still possessed the integrity of night. But when Sita opens the tap her simple gesture signals the onset of the day’s activities, because somewhere else Mr. Sary has opened the valve that allows water to flow down from the holding tanks on the roof and the water hits Sita’s plastic bucket with a noise like a string of small firecrackers. In the bathroom next door I hear the cistern beginning to fill and the children splashing about, giggling and whispering, washing themselves modestly under their clothes.

Sita has lived here, on and off, for six years, her residency interrupted by a series of transgressions, petty thefts and infractions that have made her at times unpopular with her fellow residents and unwelcome in the community. Each time she has left and failed to make a life for herself in the outside world Sita has returned, tentatively at first, testing the boundaries, subtly insinuating herself, promising that she has mended her ways, until finally Wayne’s resolution fails and he persuades the other women to allow Sita to move her few belongings back into her small house.

As with nearly everyone here, her life has been a series of the setbacks and rejections, catastrophes and abandonments, that beset people infected with HIV/AIDS the world over. Such stories abound, every imaginable permutation of sorrow and many that are unimaginable. Sita’s own story includes elements not uncommon: an abusive father, a lover who impregnated her and infected her with the HIV virus, then the death of her baby and beatings from her family and, when her illness became public knowledge, a village that tormented her and made of her a pariah. Perhaps like many poor women she has sometimes been forced into prostitution, at least informally, to feed herself. Wayne considers these things when he advocates for her in the community, and the others relent because, after all, Sita’s life has not been so different from their own.

The daylight has begun to come up now and Sita emerges from her house, dressed for the day, and begins sweeping the pounded dirt courtyard, bent over her short broom. Her dusty sarong has been properly tied, falling in a modest pleat from her waist. She wears a black blouse with panels of openwork lace, a garment that hints of the dressier ensemble it may have been part of before being sold as surplus from the sweatshops of Phnom Penh. Her high cheekbones, full mouth and high forehead give her a face that might be called sculpted rather than pretty, with a trace of knowing irony in her eyebrows. Yet I have seen her transform, and once, when she was clearly smitten by a young volunteer, she became girlish: radiant and unguarded and wonderfully soft. I could see then the beauty Sita had been and the wife and mother she might have been and the passionate woman she can be.

She moves aside a grass mat barrier to reveal a small space adjoining her house. It is no more than eight feet on a side and forms a tiny walled garden on one side of which Sita has planted pink, orange and red zinnias. Once the garden was open, but the bony cows that are allowed to graze freely in the dry season, topping Wayne’s young mango trees and eating whatever else they can find, made a meal of Sita’s flowers. So she has enclosed it, a hidden jewel, radiant in a dusty world. It is her refuge, her pride and her testament, like her radio that blares forth its witness every morning to the world and declares before Heaven, “Yes. I am still here. Listen! I am alive!”
Gail Gutradt

About Gail Gutradt

Gail Gutradt - In a Rocket Made of Ice

Gail Gutradt has volunteered at the Wat Opot Children’s Community in Cambodia since 2005. Her stories, articles, and poems have appeared in the Japan-based Kyoto Journal, as well as in the Utne Reader and Ashé Journal. Her first Kyoto Journal article, “The Things We’ve Gone Through Together,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Bar Harbor, Maine.

From the Hardcover edition.


“A wrenching memoir of the time Gutradt spent volunteering at Wat Opot, a residence for Cambodian children and teens living with HIV and AIDS.” —Sarah Meyer, O, The Oprah Magazine
“A testament to the thriving life in Wat Opot can be found in Gutradt’s powerful book. With patience, compassion, and an eye for the poetic, Gutradt’s memoir of her time as a volunteer at Wat Opot beautifully captures the heart behind the heavy circumstances that bring the community’s residents together.” —Joe Muscolino, Everyday eBook

“This might have been one of the saddest stories ever told. Instead, it is an interesting and often uplifting one [that] also offers universal lessons in compassion. The book is based on the personal journal of Gutradt, an American who has worked over the years as a volunteer at a tiny orphanage in rural Cambodia . . . Much of In a Rocket Made of Ice is devoted to sketches of the many children the author has met and grown to love, the stories enhanced by photos taken by the author . . . Gutradt writes sensitively, sometimes lyrically . . . As director of the community, Wayne Matthysse is a constant presence that binds together both Wat Opot and Gutradt’s narrative. He is a complicated man [who] considers his work atonement for the deaths of two children he witnessed [while he was] in the Vietnam War. He has a highly individualistic moral sense . . . In a Rocket Made of Ice concludes on an up-note, with stories of children who are now in their teens or early 20s. Wayne is helping them obtain educations, find jobs and learn to live ‘on the outside,’ separate from their Wat Opot family. Compared with the early days of the orphanage, these are welcome challenges. Some people need to travel far from home to find their calling—Gutradt appears to be one of them.” —Melanie Kirkpatrick, The Wall Street Journal
“Affecting and deeply felt . . . Part journalism, part memoir, In a Rocket Made of Ice is Gutradt’s story of her four stays at Wat Opot from 2005 to 2012, and the empathy, selflessness, humor and willpower she was met with at every turn. Where once Wat Opot’s purpose was to see HIV+ children and adults through to their inevitable deaths, the compound has since hummed to life . . . Despite the tragic circumstances that bring people to Wat Opot, the community roars with positivity and laughter.” —Joe Muscolino, Biographile
“An extraordinary book about an extraordinary place . . . Gutradt, a Maine native who has spent several stints volunteering at Wat Opot, paints an achingly beautiful portrait of [Wat Opot], which may not have many material resources, but is imbued with a much-needed sense of family for children who have been orphaned by AIDS . . . The ultimate goal of Wat Opot is not just to get kids healthy, but to instill in them a belief that they can live and thrive among other Cambodians, where the stigma of HIV and AIDS lingers. Many of the children go on to university, a testament to the powerful work being done on a shoestring and a prayer. Gutradt has given us an inspiring, unforgettable book.” —Amy Scribner, BookPage
“Neither sentimental nor solicitous, Gutradt’s memoir of her work in a small Cambodian community is a compassionate window into both their lives and hers.” —Bruce Jacobs, Shelf Awareness
“Gutradt takes readers into the Cambodian community of Wat Opot, where children who suffer from HIV or have lost their parents to the virus are cared for by a dedicated group of volunteers. Led by charismatic Vietnam veteran Wayne Matthysse, Wat Opot is recognized by UNICEF and other international agencies for the work it does on this most human of scales: by making sure otherwise overlooked children are fed, clothed, educated, and loved. Gutradt is clearly enamored with the work done here, and her deep affection and admiration for Matthysse are obvious . . . The good work being done at Wat Opot is admirable and to be emulated, and Gutradt writes effectively about how she’s been transformed by her association with this important place and the many delightful children who live there.” —Colleen Mondor, Booklist

“Moving, insightful . . . The story of a tiny community in Cambodia where children whose lives have been shattered by AIDS are cared for, educated and raised to live full lives in the outside world . . . Gutradt first volunteered in Wat Opot in 2005 and returned there multiple times . . . Her many photographs of the youngsters are appealing; her warm stories generally avoid sentimentality: the needy children are not angels, and as they grow, they sometimes present truly tough problems for those concerned about their welfares and futures. Gutradt also discusses the problems created by unreliable government agencies and well-intentioned but uninformed do-gooders. A refreshing account of generous people devoting their time and energy to doing something right.” —Kirkus

“Wat Opot is a community that not only saves the lives of its residents but enriches our lives through its lessons in generosity, empathy, and resilience. Before I read Gail Gutradt’s moving account, I had never heard of it. Now I will never forget it.” —Anne Fadiman, author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down 
“It’s hard not to fall in love with the author, the subjects, and the message of this beautiful book of stories and photographs. The warmth, the thoughtfulness, the writerly craft Gail Gutradt brings to an orphanage in Cambodia—and the stories and people she finds there—teach us not only about wisdom and compassion, but also about how to give our lives meaning, right now. Read it, and act on the heart-lifting vision of a universal humanity it brings so movingly home to us.” —Pico Iyer
“This is an inspiring, first-hand account of personal sacrifice to help dying children, an insight into courage, and a vivid portrait of life in rural Cambodia.” —Alan Lightman, author of Einstein’s Dreams
“Much more than a story of hope in the face of grim news and chronic disappointment, Gutradt makes a compelling case for the efficacy of ingenuity, imagination, and a commitment to human dignity in accompanying each other through adversity.” —Dr. Paul Farmer

Reader's Guide|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The questions and topics that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about Gail Gutradt’s In a Rocket Made of Ice: Among the Children of Wat Opot, a book about one woman’s journey to a community in Cambodia where children with or orphaned by HIV/AIDS find love, compassion, and family.

Discussion Guides

1. One of the first things you see as you open In A Rocket Made of Ice is a full-page photograph of children running toward you on a road. Does the art and photography woven throughout the book affect how you imagine what it might be like to live in Wat Opot? If so, how?

2. Dr. Paul Farmer, an expert in global health issues (whose story was told in Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains), acknowledges in the foreword to In A Rocket Made of Ice “the limitations of a visitor’s ability to care for the chronically ill, the unintended consequences of well-meaning projects and the often-agonizing moral dilemmas involved in caring for the sick and dying when certain resources are scarce” (x). What does he mean by this, vis-à-vis what follows in Gutradt’s account of the challenges of sustaining Wat Opot?

3. There are numerous moments in the book where limited resources were of particular issue for Wayne Dale Matthysse, the cofounder of Wat Opot, and all the volunteers. What role does money play in this book, including Gutradt’s own decisions about fund-raising among people she knows? How do the volunteers provide other kinds of healing and care above and beyond these scarce resources?

4. How do the author’s own experiences with illness—first her mother’s and then her own—shape her decision to volunteer in Cambodia? And how do they form her as a person, including her impression of the preciousness of life? How do she and the children at Wat Opot learn from each other about being brave in the face of the death of loved ones, and the possibility of one’s own death?

5. Gutradt describes her American friends’ reactions to her first five-month-long trip to Cambodia as dubious, if not shocked. What were some of the author’s own fears about what would await her there (143)? And what would your own anxieties—and hopes—be about living in such a place for an extended period of time?

6. How do rituals—both religious and nonreligious—affect how the people of Wat Opot contend with and feel about death? How does the Cambodian attitude toward death, as portrayed in this book, differ from how we think about and portray it in the United States? What role do the different religions among the denizens of Wat Opot and the surrounding communities play in general, in the book?

7. Among the many children we meet at Wat Opot is a boy called Pesei, who over the course of Gutradt’s trips there grows up and makes several significant contributions to the community, including his painting of the Welcoming Mural (shown on 242). What does his story represent about the ability of his and future generations of children to “grow up with AIDS,” and to live happy and productive lives with the illness?

8. Discuss the meaning of the book’s title (316). Why do you think the author only revealed it near the very end?

9. Gutradt’s attempt to capture life at Wat Opot includes the words of the kids themselves. How did hearing the voices of the children directly affect your involvement in the story?

10. What does Gutradt learn from Srey Mom (chapter 5) about what she can give the children most easily? Consider and discuss her statement that “there are so many children. It is hard for them to always have to share everything, never to be first, never to get enough” (28).

11. Being at Wat Opot introduces Gutradt to the responsibilities of caring for children, and of parenthood, as she never had children of her own. What are some of her reactions to and misgivings about the children’s wide-ranging personalities, and how does she evaluate her own performance as a mother figure? Consider what she says when she’s preparing for her second trip: “Deep down I also felt that I wasn’t very good at being with the children. Too often I would just do the wrong thing, or try too hard and muck things up” (155). To what extent do you feel this self-doubt is universal among parents?

12. How does the author use humor in the book, both in telling the children’s stories and describing her own lessons and experiences?

13. What are some specific aspects of Cambodian culture—from a race and gender point of view, to financial and other challenges of education in the developing world—that exacerbate the complications arising from HIV/AIDS? Consider the story of the seventy-two-year-old grandmother (chapter 27), or yei, as an example.

14. How does the transformation of Wat Opot from a hospice into a community reflect the advancement of medical care (with antiretroviral drugs, etc.) for HIV/AIDS in Cambodia? What does it mean that the community now “heals the spirits of these children so that they can manifest [their] vibrant, living energy” (145)?

15. Chapter 19 is devoted almost entirely to Wayne and explores his background as a Marine Corps medic in Vietnam, including the moment when he witnessed the death of an innocent fourteen-year-old boy. How did that experience, and his experiences with his own religious upbringing, lead him to found the community at Wat Opot?

16. Wayne’s dedication to his work is tremendous, but it faces constant obstacles, including health issues of his own. How does Wayne cope with the weight of his decisions at Wat Opot? Do you feel he’s a “hero or a saint,” or something in between (144)? How does his own impression of his work differ from this description, and what role do you think a person’s character plays in the volunteer experience?

17. What does Gutradt’s exchange with the World Food Programme regarding the shipment of rice to Wat Opot suggest about the nature of relief organizations and the impact of bureaucratic obstacles, human error, and luck and chance on their success and efficacy?

18. What and how does Gutradt learn from other volunteers, including both Papa Steve and Rebecca? How do their styles of care giving differ from one another, and from Gutradt’s? What does the book depict of the importance and value of volunteering, for the volunteer as well as for those whom he or she is helping?

19. How does Gutradt’s experience make you feel about travel to the developing world, or other poverty-striken areas, and/or about volunteering yourself? Is this kind of experience something only for the young or are such experiences possible at any age?

Suggested Readings

Ishmael Beah, A Long Way Gone; Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers; Anne Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down; Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love; Tracy Kidder, Mountains Beyond Mountains; Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky; Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran.

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