Gail Gutradt was in her late 50s when she first traveled to Cambodia in 2005 to help out at Wat Opot, a community founded by former Vietnam War medic Wayne Dale Matthysse to shelter and care for HIV/AIDS-afflicted and orphaned children. A photographer and freelance writer living in Bar Harbor, Maine, Gutradt had just attended to her mother during her year-long losing fight with cancer. She was adrift and depressed with "a sense of uselessness... fresh out of ideas" when a colleague from a pilgrimage to an ashram in India suggested that she ask Matthysse to accept her as a Wat Opot volunteer. In a Rocket Made of Ice is Gutradt's story of how this orphanage saves and nurtures young lives--and how it saved and nurtured hers. It is part memoir, part biography of the Wat Opot children, part photo journal and part how-to for philanthropists seeking to make a difference--"to walk into the chaos of a post-apocalyptic country and wrest from the devastation a small island of compassion and comity."
It would be easy for vignettes about helpless young victims of Cambodia's AIDS epidemic to read like maudlin door-to-door missionary handouts, especially when they're accompanied by photos of smiling young faces and orderly schoolrooms. Gutradt's memoir, however, is neither sentimental nor solicitous. In the early years before economical antiretroviral drugs were brought to the country by Doctors Without Borders, more children wound up in the Wat Opot crematorium than survived to be educated and independent. Matthysse lost funding from a United States church because his community was insufficiently evangelical and allowed children to attend the Buddhist monastery next door. Surrounded by competing "orphanages" operating as scam businesses, Wat Opot had to show donors that their support was efficiently going to treat, feed and educate these children.
In a digression to recount Matthysse's own troubled personal journey through post-war wandering, she admits that the Cambodian community he founded works well partly because he is not only a stern and compassionate father to the children but also something of a benevolent despot. Yet Gutradt also admires his simple philosophy of success: "Just start where you are, and do what you can, and don't let yourself be paralyzed by the naysayers."
During the time between her four extended visits to Wat Opot, Gutradt was diagnosed with breast cancer. Suffering through her treatments, she came to appreciate even more the strength of the children she cared for. When feeling self-doubt and asking herself what someone who traveled between two very different worlds could offer, she finally concludes "it is the mere act of returning here that has made a difference, that has let them know that I care." Sometimes true philanthropy consists of just being there--again and again. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.
Shelf Talker: Neither sentimental nor solicitous, Gutradt's memoir of her work in a small Cambodian community for orphans afflicted with AIDS is a compassionate window into both their lives and hers.