The whole world watches nervously as the fate of so many hangs in the balance. Minutes turn to hours and hours turn to days with still no resolution in sight. It’s the lead story on every network as we all sit glued to our screens awaiting the final outcome.
If you think I’m describing the events of November 2020, you would be mistaken. I’m actually talking about Class of 2002 Trinity alumna Christina Soontornvat’s new book, All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team. As a person who watched the Titanic film while hoping against hope that the boat wouldn’t sink (spoiler alert...Jack dies!), I was relieved to know from the outset that all 12 boys and the coach of the Wild Boars soccer team do survive. But how do 13 people trapped for weeks deep inside a flooded cave in Thailand make it out alive? And how does an author with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering end up being the perfect person to tell their story? I recently had the pleasure of talking to Christina to find out.
Christina grew up in Weatherford, Texas, where her parents had a successful Asian restaurant. Her father was born and raised in Thailand and immigrated to the U.S. when he was 19 years old. When Christina was young, she spent a lot of time at the family restaurant where she answered phones, took take-out orders, and read lots of books. Since two of the top graduates from her local high school had attended Trinity, Christina assumed (correctly, it turns out), that Trinity University must be where the smart people go to college. She applied early admission, was accepted, and never looked back.
When she started at Trinity, Christina originally wanted to major in physics but ended up switching to mechanical engineering because she thought it was a more practical choice. She has fond memories of her favorite engineering professor, Peter Vafeades, who “would always pull in these stories. For example,” Christina recalls, “he told us about the building of the Roman aqueduct. It just really should have foreshadowed to me what path that I would eventually find myself on.”
After graduating from Trinity, Christina took a job at a science museum. “I had started to veer into the world of education and working with kids using my science degree. That’s when I met a colleague who was a published children’s book author and also a chemist.” He encouraged Christina to start attending conferences where she learned the craft of writing children’s books. “Austin, which is where I live now, has a pretty vibrant kid book community. There are a lot of published authors and illustrators who are very active...people get together and help each other.”
Christina started writing her first book when she was home with her daughter on maternity leave. “It took ten years,” she explained, “but I just kept chipping away at it until I was able to get published.” When I asked her how the mom of two young children finds time to write, she said, “I learned really early that whatever you can get done in 30 minutes while the kid is asleep is good...and if you do it enough, all those minutes add up and you can write a book that way.” Her method obviously works because Christina has authored many acclaimed children’s books, including the chapter book series Diary of an Ice Princess and her middle-grade fantasy novel that just came out this year, A Wish in the Dark.
In July of 2018, Christina was inspired to make the leap into writing nonfiction after a trip to Thailand. She was visiting her family in northern Thailand when the Wild Boars soccer team went missing. Christina remembers how it went from a small, local story to a major news event as reports of the missing children and their coach ran on Thai television 24 hours a day. The coverage focused mainly on rescue efforts of the Thai Navy SEALs and on local people who had volunteered to help. When Christina returned home to the United States, however, she saw that the focus there was almost exclusively dedicated to the British divers who brought the boys out of the cave. Also, she noticed that Westerners were puzzled by the offerings the boys’ families had made in front of the cave and other typical aspects of Thai daily life.
Seeing this disconnect inspired Christina to write the book for a U.S. audience using her first-hand knowledge of Thai culture. “If you’re going to understand everything about the rescue, a Thai perspective is really going to help. So, that’s what prompted me to want to tell the story. Just shift the center to Thailand instead of looking at it through the Western lens.”
So, just two months after the last person made it out of the cave alive, Christina and her father, who acted as her translator, returned to Thailand to interview those directly involved in the rescue efforts. From the mountain of source material she collected, Christina tells the story of a group of kids ranging in age from 12 to 17 years old, who survived in the dark for 10 days with no food and no contact with the outside world. Even after the first diver actually located the children, it took 8 more days for the last survivor to be carried out.
While the book describes the heroic efforts of the Thai Navy SEAL team and the expert cave divers from all over the globe who arrived on the scene, it also highlights the local villagers who fed hundreds of volunteers and the farmers who brought pumps from all over Thailand to reduce the water level in the cave. Christina emphasizes that, “The kids are also heroes in the story...The mental challenge of just waiting in the darkness is so great.”
All Thirteen was released in October 2020, and since then Christina has participated in dozens of online sessions with students from across the U.S. to chat about her book. “I’ve been talking to kids during a pandemic when we’re all going through a really difficult time.” What is Christina’s message to the students she meets? She tells them, “You can get through this. You will get through this because these boys got through something that was also really difficult. So, just think about them and realize you’re stronger than you probably think you are.”
My biggest take away from reading All Thirteen and from talking to Christina was realizing what is possible when people put aside their differences and focus their energy on a common goal. As miraculous as the rescue was, it was actually the result of thousands of hard-working people from various countries and backgrounds coming together to do the impossible. Maybe this story isn’t so far removed from the 2020 elections after all. Just think about what we could accomplish if we came together as a country and worked toward a common purpose. Imagine the number of lives we could save.