Children of the River

By Nancy Barile on January 31, 2011
  • Grades: 6–8, 9–12

I teach in an urban school system that is considered a "gateway" community. We are, after all, about five minutes away from Logan Airport. There are over forty-six languages spoken at our school, and most students speak a language other than English as their first language. Many of these are Cambodian Americans.

I teach in an urban school system that is considered a "gateway" community. We are, after all, about five minutes away from Logan Airport. There are over forty-six languages spoken at our school, and most students speak a language other than English as their first language. Many of these are Cambodian Americans. A large number of Cambodian refugees settled in Revere in the 1980s and 1990s, and many of my students' families experienced the horrors of the Khmer Rouge firsthand. For this reason and others, Children of the River is perfect for my classes. 



Children of the River is both romantic and historic. The novel opens in Cambodia, where 13-year-old Sundara is helping her aunt, who just gave birth to a baby boy. Suddenly the family is forced to leave their village because of the Khmer Rouge. Sundara must immediately flee, leaving behind her parents, brother, sister, and her beloved Chamroeun, the boy she had hoped to marry. There are many Cambodian students in my class whose families experienced similar terrors.

For instance, Amy, a Cambodian-American student in my sophomore honors English class, has written about her father's experiences in Cambodia during the reign of the Khmer Rouge:

In 1975, Cambodia was under control of the Khmer Rouge Communist Party. My father was 14 and lived in the city of Phnom Penh with his parents and eight brothers and sisters. His family was one of the many other unfortunate families that were executed by Communist soldiers. Everyone was held captive in a decrepit one room building. My father, who was one of the last ones left in the room, jumped out a window and escaped execution. After the Khmer Rouge period ended (1979), my father pursued a new life in the United States.

Amy's family experienced many of the same hardships Sundara and her family did when they came to the U.S., but they also recognized the good. Amy writes:

There were many aspects of America, my father realized, that were different from Cambodian customs. For instance, there was more industrial labor. Back in his homeland, my father's job was to raise cattle and grow food for his family. Also, the United States was run by a more efficient government. There were human rights, which Cambodian citizens did not have. Furthermore, medicine and technology were more advanced. The United States acquired treatments and machines for medical procedures that Cambodia did not have access to. My father viewed the changes he saw as beneficial to society and felt he made the right choice in coming to America.

Also like Sundara, Amy's father missed much about the Cambodian way of life:

The things my dad truly missed about his country were friends, family, and his old lifestyle. He still misses his family that died and his childhood friends he has not seen for so long. My dad even misses the food and working on the farm. He considers life in the U.S. to be much more hectic than it is back in his country. Even so, there are many things he likes about America. For example, he admires the opportunities that the U.S. offers. You are able to become whomever you want and achieve your goals to the best of your ability. No matter what your situation is like, you can always change it if you choose to. In addition, my father likes the diversity he has seen in America, and how everyone comes from different backgrounds.

Life in the United States is quite difficult for Sundara, the protagonist of Children of the River. The family works long hours in the field picking vegetables and selling them in the market. And since Sundara is only a niece and not an immediate family member, she feels alienated in the home of her aunt and uncle. At her Oregon high school, Sundara also feels disconnected. That is, until she meets Jonathan, a handsome football player, who asks for Sundara's help on an international relations project he's working on. Not only does Jonathan have a cheerleader girlfriend, but Sundara lives in fear of her aunt and uncle finding out about her friendship with a boy who is not Cambodian. Haunted by her experiences fleeing Cambodia and torn by her attraction to Jonathan, Sundara is at a loss for just what to do.

Boys and girls alike enjoy this novel, and it is one that most students can read on their own with ease. I have taught this book for over sixteen years at my very multicultural school, and it is always a hit. Students who moved to the U.S. from other countries can empathize with Sundara's desire to keep her Cambodian traditions while at the same time wanting to assimilate into American culture. But any student who feels disengaged and disconnected in today's world can relate to Sundara. In addition, the novel helps all students realize just how hard it is to adapt to a new way of life.

Students who enjoy Children of the River would also like How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez, which chronicles the difficulties the Garcia girls experience in emigrating from Santo Domingo to the Bronx. Scholastic provides this "First Person Fiction DIscussion Guide" to other novels about coming to America, including Flight to Freedom (Cuba), Behind the Mountains (Haiti), The Stone Goddess (Cambodia), and Finding My Hat (Korea).

~ Nancy


this is boring to me

JT, your students will love this book. And Samantha, this is the PERFECT book for independent reading. You can assign the student a book report (a good one where they identify theme, foreshadowing, characterization, plot, etc.). The students usually love the book, and I bet they'll all read it!

How can we incorporate some of this wonderful literature into pre-set curriculum? For example, some of my students are studying British literature this year, but I would love to incorporate more multi-cultural works in future years...suggestions?

Nancy thank you for opening my eyes to other multicultural literature! I will definitely look into this book and inform my colleague who does a unit in prejudices. It's vital for all our students to read about other cultures and empathize as well as realize that we're all humans in this globe! Students really want to learn and as English teachers the books that you recommended open our eyes to further support their desire of knowing the world. Thanks for another amazing blog!

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