When Karen Connelly was seventeen and entering her last year of high school, she was whisked from northern Canada to the north of Thailand as a Rotary exchange student. Plunged into total cultural immersion in the small farming community of Denchai, she is instantly faced with a new alphabet with over seventy characters, a five-toned language, and the difficulty of fitting her independent, privacy-loving, poet's spirit into a highly protective culture.
Blessed with humor, adaptability, and a compulsion to keep a journal about her new life, she has carefully chronicled a lovely account of the transformation that experiencing another country can bring.
She learns to live in a world in which solitude is an upsetting anomaly, where ghosts are an accepted part of the psychic landscape, and where the sight of her "own pale arms" in her dark bedroom becomes amazing to her. Without "the words for the questions," much of what she sees at the beginning of her Thai life are mysteries that await explanations. And after three months, she is in love with Thailand, knowing that the country that she can never own a part of "already owns part of me."
Her book is written in Thai time, with long, seamless expanses of quiet observation that are punctuated by small adventures and the joy of daily living. A trip to Bangkok plunges her into unexpected culture shock when she stays in the comfort of a typical Western home after living for months in rural simplicity. Back in Denchai, Karen is plunged into comic episodes: the day that she competes in a village beauty contest, the night that she is turned out of her bedroom to accommodate a pair of newlyweds, and the wildly exuberant holiday of Songkran, the Thai New Year, when the entire kingdom is drenched in riotously hurled cold water.
As she prepares to return to Canada, she mourns, "I should have been awake constantly. I should have learned more." But few visitors have been so awake in Thailand, and even fewer have shared the country as poetically and generously as Karen Connelly has.
Seven years after her year in Denchai, Karen became the youngest winner of Canada's prestigious Governor-General Award for Touch the Dragon, which was published in the United States under the title Dream of a Thousand Lives. Fifteen years after it was published, her book remains a beacon and a benchmark for those who live in Thailand and hope to explain a small portion of the country to people who have not yet had the opportunity to experience it for themselves.