Sundara flees Cambodia for the safety of Oregon, where she struggles to be a "good Cambodian girl". Although she is forbidden to speak to any white ...Show synopsisSundara flees Cambodia for the safety of Oregon, where she struggles to be a "good Cambodian girl". Although she is forbidden to speak to any white boys, Sundara falls in love with Jonathan. Is her new life disloyal to her past?Hide synopsis
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This is a very nice work of fiction for young adults; I'm not surprised that the author won several awards for this title. Although I am a few years older than the target audience, I enjoyed the story very much and found that I could relate quite well to the teenage characters. Perhaps this is because the story takes place during the late 1970s, when I was also a high school student. I could certainly understand Sundara's wish to wear jeans to school like all the other students. Nobody at my school would have wanted to appear on campus in an icky, second-hand, polyester pant suit!!
Description from the back cover: "Sundara fled Cambodia with her aunt's family to escape the Khmer Rouge army when she was thirteen, leaving behind her parents, her brother and sister, and the boy she had loved since she was a child. Now, four years later, she struggles to fit in at her Oregon high school and to be "a good Cambodian girl" at home. A good Cambodian girl never dates; she waits for her family to arrange her marriage to a Cambodian boy. Yet Sundara and Jonathan, an extraordinary American boy, are powerfully drawn to each other. Haunted by grief for her lost family and for the life she left behind, Sundara longs to be with him. At the same time she wonders, Are her hopes for happiness and a new life in America disloyal to her past and her people?"
I think the defining event of the story has nothing to do with Sundara's growing friendship with Jonathan. Instead, it is the moment she leaves childhood behind at age thirteen. Entrusted with the care of Younger Aunt's newborn girl, Sundara has no way to feed the child. Younger Aunt is too ill to nurse the child, the only other nursing mother on the boat cannot help her, and the milk packets and sugar water provided on the boat only make the infant sicker. When the baby dies, Sundara is forced by those in charge of the boat to toss her body into the ocean. Sundara blames herself for not being able to keep the baby alive, and believes that her aunt hates her for it. This belief shapes every aspect of Sundara's relationship with her family, as well as her own self-image. She goes from a "sassy" little girl to a very hard working young lady, and it is interesting to see how this transformation and Sundara's ultimate absolution of guilt play out in the story.
I wondered about the book's title, Children of the River. At the end of chapter 14, Sundara talks to Jonathan about differing views of life's journey. She points out that Americans tend to view the journey of life as a road. I am reminded here of Frost's famous poem, The Road Not Taken. Sundara says that her people view the journey of life as a trip down a river, which is a very interesting way to look at it.
"We think of life more like a river. Think of it that way, maybe you right I have no choice. On a river it is not so simple as just choose which way to go. On a river we try to steer a good course, but all the time we getting swept along by a force greater than ourselves. A road can go anywhere, and then it stop. But a river never stop. All the river flow together and become one. This is more like life, don't you think so? Because then it begin all over again"(146).
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