READERS GUIDEThe 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.
IntroductionA 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.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
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? 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. 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. 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 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”.
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”. 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, 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”?
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? 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?