The title for “In a Rocket Made of Ice” came from a 17-year-old Cambodian boy named Sovann. In the last chapter of this memoir, he sits with the author and asks her if it is true that people fly to the moon. He wonders how they might fly to the sun and imagines that a rocket made of ice could achieve the impossible.

“In a Rocket Made of Ice” is arranged as a patchwork of stories through which Gail Gutradt chronicles her time at Wat Opot, a community in rural Cambodia for children living with or orphaned by HIV/AIDS. It is a story that continually illuminates what creativity, compassion and faith make possible.

A complex series of events, starting with a record-breaking-cold January in Maine, led Gutradt from her home in Bar Harbor to the community in Cambodia. The deep freeze, the recent death of her mother and a growing sense of uselessness pushed Gutradt into a place of need.

A friend told her about Wat Opot and she contacted Wayne Dale Matthysse, the director.

Wayne is an enthralling character whose spiritual convictions twine through his history. He was a medic in the Vietnam War, started a counseling center for Navajo and Hopi youth in New Mexico, and practices a long-held vow of celibacy.

He runs the children’s community with hard work, deep convictions and few resources. His commitment to honoring the Buddhist traditions of the children and their families makes him unpopular with missionary groups and compromises his funding.

But the most interesting and moving characters in Gutradt’s story are the children.

She chronicles their tragic histories, daily joys and small dramas. Also a photographer, Gutradt’s images are scattered throughout the book. They show gleeful children giggling at the camera and solemn-faced youngsters that look like tiny adults.

Like so many stories about giving and receiving, the direction of benefit blurs, and Gutradt gets as much from the children and the community as she hoped to give.

Later, she is diagnosed with cancer and her experiences at Wat Opot help her to face this new challenge. As a friend tells her, “all pilgrimages are internal.”

There are moments in the narrative where Gutradt’s self-reflection brings life to her story.

She doesn’t shy away from difficult moments: facing anger at a child, navigating religious differences, examining the power she carries as a Western woman.

But there are other places where the story meanders, most strikingly on a pilgrimage Gutradt took to the Ganges River in India.

The reader longs to get back to the richness of Wat Opot, where the lessons are subtler and we are carried along in the details of character and place.

“A vital part of what we are doing is bearing witness to it all – the joyous and heartbreaking alike,” Gutradt said, describing the role of volunteers at Wat Opot.

With “In a Rocket Made of Ice,” Gutradt gives the reader this same opportunity to witness, even from afar.

Heidi Sistare is a writer who lives in Portland. She attended the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies and has published work in The Rumpus, Martha’s Vineyard Magazine and Edible Vineyard. Contact her at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @heidisistare