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Magical Gifts

Cover of The Clay Marble. Cover art by Susan Bonners The Clay Marble by Minfong Ho
A Sunburst Book, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1991

How do you explain war to a child? How do you make sense of horror and loss?

And how do you make a child find the true source of magic in a small lump of clay?

Minfong Ho's fine novel The Clay Marble tries to answer these difficult questions. Written for young readers, and set in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border in 1980, Marble tells the story of Dara, a young Cambodian girl who is forced out of her village by war.

Ho, who was a volunteer at the camps in the spring of 1980, clearly understands her subject well. Her description of a conversation between strangers arriving at the camp bears the stamp of authenticity:

'Welcome to Nong Chang,' the girl said. She looked around Sarun's age, eighteen or nineteen, and had a broad face with high cheekbones. There was a bright checkered kerchief wrapped around her hair, and her eyes were friendly and curious. 'Where do you come from?' she asked.

'Siem Reap,' Mother answered.

'Really?' The girl brightened. 'So do we! Our village is right next to the lake.'

'That makes us practically neighbors,' Mother said, squatting down companionably beside the girl. 'How many of you have come to the border?'

'There's four of us: my grandfather and my two little cousins,' the girl said.

'And your parents?'

'Dead,' the girl said simply. 'As are my sisters, and the parents of the cousins with us.' She gave the pot of rice a quick stir. 'My grandmother and three brothers, too. All dead.'

'My husband died four years ago, and then my mother,' Mother said.

For a moment there was silence. I had heard enough of such conversations not to interrupt. First there were the greetings, then the terse tally of the dead, then the pause. Only after that, it seemed, could there be talk of other things."

Dara soon finds a friend in Jantu, another refugee. Jantu has a special gift: she can make toys from clay. Soon the Border begins to feel like a home. The war, however, is not over, and it will once again overtake Dara, Jantu, and their families in unexpected ways. Perhaps it is fitting that the final, critical battle isn't be fought with guns. It's a battle for a heart and mind.

Like Linda Crew's excellent Children of the River, The Clay Marble strives to make the the pain of the wars in Southeast Asia accessible to young readers who are unfamiliar with the history of the region. It succeeds nicely. At the beginning of the book, Ho's dedication is a brief and moving three lines:

For the little girl
who gave me a clay marble
on my first day at the Border

Eleven years after those small hands shaped a lump of clay, Ho has added some magic of her own, and given us all a fine gift.


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