Children of the River Summary

Linda Crew

Children of the River

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Children of the River Summary

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Children of the River ,by Linda Crew, is a young adult novel. Published in 1989, it takes place in Cambodia. The story opens with Sundara Sovann, a twelve-year-old girl growing up in the capital, Phnom Penh. There, she befriends a charming and intelligent boy called Chamroeun. Sundara’s and Chamroeun’s parents tease the two children that they will someday marry. Sundara actually does fall in love with Chamrouen when they’re older, but he goes to fight in the war. Sundara leaves the capital to live with her aunt and uncle. From there, she leaves Cambodia altogether, fleeing with Soka, her aunt, Naro, her uncle, and her grandmother. They’re fleeing the Khmer Rouge.

Sundara’s remaining family stays behind in Cambodia, which leaves Sundara saddled with guilt later in the story. Soka gives birth to a baby right before they have to flee the country. During their exodus, the baby is placed in Sundara’s care because Soka isn’t in a mental state fit to look after the infant. The baby is severely malnourished. Soka is unable to make enough breastmilk to meet the infant’s needs, but, after significant effort, Sundara is able to get some powdered milk, sugar, and water to bottle feed the baby. Unfortunately, despite her efforts, the baby dies.

When Sundara reaches America, she comes to understand the customs there, but not the logic behind those customs. This makes her transition more difficult. At school, Sundara’s teacher—Mrs. Cathcart—asks Sundara to read aloud her poem about fleeing Cambodia. The poem is also about all the people there who died. Outside of school, she works alongside her aunt for Mr. Bonner on his farm. The farm also has a fruit stand at the local market, and Sundara often finds herself in charge of that. Through her work, she meets a boy from school named Jonathan. Jonathan is close in age to her.

Jonathan and Sundara become friends, and he asks her to do an interview about Cambodia and her life there. They fall in love, but Soka isn’t very accepting of Jonathan. Soka makes Sundara swear that she won’t associate with Jonathan in the future. Shortly afterwards, Sundara learns that Chamroeun died in action. Jonathan offers her comfort and asks why she didn’t shed any tears. Sundara confides that she’s been unable to cry since leaving Cambodia.

Sundara learns that Jonathan is popular at school; he even has a girlfriend named Cathy Gates. Cathy and Jonathan have been dating since the ninth grade, and Cathy is certain that what she shares with Jonathan is special. Jonathan starts spending more and more time with Sundara. They eat lunch together and then he asks her to go with him to the movies. Sundara feels like she’s becoming more American.

Rumors start to spread around school that there’s something more than friendship between Jonathan and Sundara. Cathy catches wind of them and is less than thrilled. She wants to confront Sundara, who doesn’t want conflict at all. Her friend from Cambodia, Moni, reminds her that back at home, marriages are arranged.

Even though Sundara is adapting to life in America, there’s much that still causes confusion. She doesn’t understand why girls shower together after gym class. She also doesn’t understand Jonathan and Cathy’s relationship. Sundara recognizes that she has feelings for Jonathan, but she doesn’t know what to do about those feelings and doesn’t feel like she can show them. One night, she finds out from her cousin Ravy that Jonathan was hurt in a football game. He’s in the hospital, and Sundara goes to visit him. There, Jonathan tells her that he doesn’t like the attention Cathy pays him and that he loves Sundara.

Jonathan quits football, and when his father goes on a mission trip because Jonathan yelled at him for not helping in Cambodia, Jonathan is ashamed that he fought with his father. Sundara and Moni go on a trip to collect bottles. They find an old doll, which triggers Sundara’s memory of her aunt’s dead baby, and she breaks down, crying hysterically. She’s taken home, where her grandmother declares that the baby’s spirit has possessed Sundara. The women all pray for her release.

Important themes in Children of the River include international affairs, the struggles experienced by refugees, and how the basic goodness of people can help them overcome inhumane situations. Children of the River has won several awards: the Children’s Book Award from the International Reading Association, the Golden Kite Honor Book award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and the Best Book for Young Adults from the American Library Association. Linda Crew spent a year researching Cambodian history and culture prior to writing Children of the River. Crew’s other notable works include: Brides of Eden: A True Story Imagined, A Heart for Any Fate: Westward to Oregon 1845, and Fire on the Wind.