Readers often ask me if Sundara and Jonathan got married in the end, and while reminding them that these are fictional characters, Iíve enjoyed telling about the Sundara and Jonathan type weddings Iíve attended. Weddings arenít the only happy endings, though!
Recently I was surprised and delighted (and envious!) to see that Putsata Reang, the youngest daughter in the Reang family who inspired the story, had succeeded in publishing a column in The Modern Love section of the New York Times. Since my own offerings there have been rejected, I was impressed! She has also published articles, a true crime book, and is working on a book-length telling of her familyís coming to America. I will be the first to buy and read it!
This staged picture of me with my son Miles and Putsata Reang appeared in our local paper when Children of the River was first published in 1989.
Our parallel real life story continues! My beautiful daughter-in-law and darling grandson celebrate his first Fourth of July!
Yes, it's true. Writers read their own Amazon reviews. I was distresssed recently to read one by a teacher who said that although CHILDREN OF THE RIVER had moved her to tears, she didn't feel it was the best historical fiction for use in the classroom.
I protest! I stand behind every historical detail in the book and every fictional incident is based on something that really happened to someone.
I was so pleased to receive this letter late last night from Kate Gessert, an English as a Second Language teacher in Eugene, Oregon:
Hi Linda! On your website I just read the amazing story of what's happened since you wrote Children of the River. It seems like writing the book changed your life and your family's. I'll read what you wrote tomorrow evening with my ESL students. They just finished reading the book this weekend and discussing it in class last night, ending with clapping and cheers. Sometimes there's controversy about the ending - some holdouts for a Hollywood finale with Sundara and Jonathan walking down the aisle surrounded by her entire family - but this time around everyone was thoroughly satisfied.
Since you and I met, years ago, I think my students and I have been through three class sets. We wear them out. It's by far the best book we read. I switch off with other books from term to term, but every year we read Children of the River. I love both the book and the reflections, conversations, and writing it sparks about students' experiences of coming to the U.S. It's a great gift you've given us and everyone. Thank you!!
Warmly, Kate Gessert
In writing Children of the River, I researched the Cambodian holocaust and read about the Western journalists holed up in the American Embassy after the Communist takeover. What a thrill, then, to be shipping a box of the resulting novel to that very embassy twenty-five years later, knowing my story would be read by these young Cambodians! Thank you to Daniel Labarca, a Peace Corps volunteer who had taught the book in California and thought it might work in Cambodia as well, and good luck to these students in their study of English.
International Reading Association Children's Book Award
Golden Kite Honor Book
ALA Best of the Best
Praise for Children of the River
A powerful first novel... Authenic....Rich...A book to change readers' eyes and hearts." --Kirkus, pointered review
"Crew's characterization is excellent... Readers are swept effortlessly to a most believable and emotionally satisfying conclusion." --School Library Journal, starred review
"Heartwarming" --San Diego Union
"Beautifully told."--San Francisco Chronicle
"A moving look at the way in which a survivor of a great tragedy, having confronted overshelming changes in her life, faces young adulthood." --Publisher's Weekly
"Notable for its strong storytelling and thorough characterization." --Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
I saw this lovely Khmer girl at a New Year's Celebration in Portland, Oregon. I don't know who she is or anything of her story. Because of that, I probably looked at her picture more than any other while working on Children of the River. I could imagine her as Sundara.
The wedding of the daughter of Koh Sam-ou, the woman to whom I dedicated the book. Below, her sister with her fiance. They were married the following year.
I live with my husband on a small farm in Corvallis, Oregon. Although the acreage is now planted mainly in trees, in the past, weíve grown vegetables, berries, and flowers, and often needed to hire extra hands to help with the picking. In 1980, a Cambodian family came to work for us during harvest. As we became friends with them and heard about their escape from Cambodia in 1975, I began to realize that every Cambodian refugee in the United States probably had an equally fascinating story. Since I hadnít read a novel for young readers that dealt with this issue, I thought I might try to fashion the stories into one myself.
I knew nothing about the history and culture of Cambodia, so I spent a year in research before I ever started writing the first rough draft of the book. I read everything I could find on the subject and interviewed Cambodian refugees as well as those who had worked with them. Their stories gave me many plot ideas and details for the book. The manuscript was written and rewritten several times over the next few years, as with each draft I tried to improve it. Of course I had hoped that the book would be immediately accepted by a publisher, but this was not the case. CHILDREN OF THE RIVER was rejected sixteen times before it was finally accepted by Delacorte Press in the spring of 1987, to be published in 1989. This shows how difficult it can be for a new writer to break into publishing! It also shows, though, how persistence is sometimes rewarded.
One question Iím often asked is if the main character, Sundara Sovann, is based on a real person. She isnít. Sundara is a fictional character put together out of many different Cambodian girls I met or heard about. This is also true of the other characters in the book. While every incident in the book is based on something I read or heard about, the actual story is fiction. You could say itís all true, and none of itís true. But this is one of the things I like about fiction, the way imaginary characters and incidents can sometimes convey a larger truth more powerfully than a strict recounting of facts ever could.
Writing Children of the River has had a far-reaching impact on our lives. My oldest son, who was then about three, used to play with the Cambodian children whose parents worked on our farm. Sometimes, for long stretches, they were the only other children he saw, and I often tell the story of how he came to me one day and said, ďMom? When is MY hair going to turn black?Ē When I began working on the book, I imagined him grown up to Jonathan's age and wondered what it would be like if he fell in love with a beautiful Asian girl. I canít help wondering if knowing these wonderful people, our Cambodian friends, is at least part of the reason he has grown up intensely interested in all things Asian. He is fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese, reading and writing Chinese characters and now makes his living translating Chinese to English on the internet for clients all over the world. He and his bride had three weddings, one in Yangshuo, China, a second at the Benton County Courthouse soon after her arrival in the United States and a third full-blown American style ceremony.
I'm sitting at the head table at the wedding banquet, waiting for the festivities to begin. My husband, son and I were the only whites among the two hundred and fifty guests and, among the Chinese, only our daughter-in-law and one of her cousins spoke any English at all. We had taken a crash course in Mandarin but didn't get too far beyond Nihao (hello) and Wo bu ming bai (I don't understand). It was extremely frustrating to be unable to communicate, and my own character Sundara's words to Jonathan came back to haunt me: "Cannot talk is like a prison." A Cambodian refugee I interviewed all those years ago must have put it that way to me during an interview; now I was experiencing it for myself.
Preparing for a memorable boatride on the famously beautiful Li River. My daughter-in-law tells me her father used to take her to swim here every day. Her family has lived in Yangshuo for eight generations! I cannot believe that twenty-five years after I began work on Children of the River, our real lives have taken this thrilling twist.
We were honored to have the Reangs as special guests at our son's wedding.
Itís been interesting following the lives of the Cambodians who inspired the story in the first place. So far the girls have all married white men. Occasionally someone will take issue with this in my book. Not to my face, but perhaps in a posting on Amazon.com or a comment in a journal. Why did I have to write about an Asian girl and a white boy? In my defense, I can say only that Iím trying to reflect reality and for whatever reason, this does seem to be a reality. Likewise, I once stumbled over a criticism that I had ďperpetuated the myth of the model minority.Ē Again, I make no apology. Part of the reason I wanted to write about the Cambodians was because I so much admired them and the way they had worked so hard to overcome obstacles in finding new lives here in the United States. To witness their stories of educational and economic success and then write stories of failure would hardly seem fair!
Some readers asked why I ended the book where I did and whether or not I plan to continue with a sequel. Please believe that I thought very carefully about how to end Sundaraís story; it wasnít just a matter of deciding I had enough pages or was tired of writing! I wanted to end on a note of hope for Sundara and Jonathan, at a point where the reader could imagine a good future for the two of them . As for a sequel, I have many reasons for feeling, at this time anyway, that it wouldnít be a good idea. Lately, though, Iíve noticed many writers coming up with sequels to books they originally wrote twenty or more years before, so I guess I should never say never.
Return to Yangshuo, 2010