The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival – John Vaillant (2010)

This was, unusually for a reread, another great all-encompassing reading experience which managed to allow me to travel to the far eastern reaches of Siberia to follow the events that happened in a small struggling village deep in the forest. It’s what happens when humans and predators (of the animal sort) have to overlap due to reduced natural environment and resources, and it’s what can go extraordinarily wrong when this situation occurs. 

Vaillant is a well-respected journalist with work printed in prestigious outlets such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic, and his writing demonstrates his skill in how he handles the text. He was born in the U.S., but has lived in Vancouver for some time now, and most of his books cover current topics with a focus towards the natural environment. 

As mentioned, I’d read “The Tiger” before (preblog), and, being a little fed up with the never-ending sun and heat of the West Texas summer, I was searching for a read that would take me to a cooler location, even if it was only in my head.  Combine excellent writing and wordsmithing with an amazing true story, and you’ve got me. 

John Vaillant

The narration is mostly placed in eastern Siberia, in the area known mostly for logging. It’s sparsely inhabited (with ref to humans) and is a very harsh environment with temperatures regularly falling deep below freezing for weeks and months at a time. Only the hardy survive. 

Logging has been significantly reducing the forest (called the taiga) and there is widespread poverty amongst those who live there. Limited resources make people and animals desperate and the shrinking wild land makes it much more likely that human activity will necessarily overlap with natural boundaries already well established. 

It’s because of this growing overlap that Vaillant can write this riveting story. Amur tigers used to be quite a frequent sight in this region, but their numbers had been falling over the years. Already a predator, one of the local tigers had attacked and killed one of the villagers. But why? After decades of living quite peacefully together, each in their own world, what happened for the tiger to attack the man? And why did the tiger not only kill the man, but rip him to shreds, much more than would be necessary just to make sure he died? Absolute shreds.

When another villager has a similar hair-raising encounter (but this time he survives), the local nature reservation agents become alarmed. When the tiger starts behaving as though he (or she) has a personal vendetta against particular villagers, the occasion starts to take on a new level of importance. The villagers live deep in the forest and they would have little chance of staying alive without venturing into the surrounding forest for food and fuel… And why was the tiger suddenly paying attention to them? 

The book covers quite a short space of time, calendar-wise – perhaps one month or so – and through Vaillant’s careful and descriptive reporting style, you as the reader are taken along on the journey as local experts try to combine modern-day science with years-old traditional folklore to try to understand why the intricate balance has been thrown off between these two otherwise fairly symbiotic parties. 

By the time that I turned that last page, I was full of admiration for everyone involved: the tiger himself (who was only doing what years of evolution has taught him to do – plus a little personal vendetta-ing combined), the villagers (again, desperate straits) and the nature agents who were brought in to solve the conundrum. It was an extremely fraught situation but with climate change continuing to worsen at this point, I would bet that these sort of natural world overlaps will become more and more common as resources shrink. 

Quite an amazing story – even for a reread! Now, I’m adding Vaillant’s other work to my other TBR… 

Summer Reading Suggestions Part Two: Armchair Traveling…

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Summer months can mean traveling, and even if you’re stuck at home in the heat (or cold!), you can still cover ground that’s very different to yours from the ease of your armchair…

Any editions of America’s Best Travel Writing will work and help your internal travels on the way, really, but it helps to align the editor person of that year with your own particular tastes. (Or so I learned the other day.) I really recommend Mary Roach’s book from when she edited…. But then I’m a Mary Roach fangirl to nth degree. There are a lot of others from which to choose…

If you have a lot of luggage to take with you, have a look at Victorian traveler Francis Galton’s The Art of Travel: Shifts and Contrivances Available in Wild Countries (1854), and be thankful that you don’t have to carry all his stuff. 🙂

As I live in Texas and summers can get pretty hot (114 degrees the other day), I really enjoy reading books about adventures in cooler places as they can remove me (at least in my mind) from the high temperatures that we have here.

Going northwards to the Canadian wilds is cooler, and Mary Bosanquet’s true recollection, Saddlebags for Suitcases (1942), is a good account of how she traveled across Canada on horseback before she had to settle down and get married. (Lucky to have such rich and generous parents, but good read all the same.)

If you’d rather stay on the main land of the U.S., have a looksee at Charles Dickens’ excellent travelogue of his time in the States, American Notes for General Circulation (1842). (Old but still relevant and en-pointe a lot of the time. Really funny in some ways, and I think if you’re a fan of Bill Bryson, you’d like this one. Seriously. A lot of overlaps.)

For a very different perspective of traveling and adventuring, the poignant and exciting two-volume diaries of Cherry Aspley-Garrard’s harrowing trip with Captain Scott to the Antarctic is riveting. (And cold.)

If you’d prefer Siberian levels of cold, try Esther Hautzig’s compulsively readable The Endless Steppe about her childhood where her family gets sent to Siberia as part of the WWII action in Poland. (It’s very good. And it’s very cold. And it’s amazing what the human spirit can do to survive.)

For more cold (but not *quite* so cold) reading, how about Crowdie and Cream by Finley J. McDonald and The Crofter and the Laird by John McPhee? Both accounts of living in the Hebrides up in north Scotland. Brrr.

More coolish travel accounts include Jonathon Raban’s really good 1987 book, Coasting, about his time traveling in a small boat around the edges of United Kingdom. (English summer is not known to be very sunny and warm at times…)

Raban’s a really good writer, and as a related aside: he has another book from when he was traveling around North Dakota and its environs, called Badlands (pre-blog). (Just really good solid travel non-fiction, and fun if you’re stuck in a chair in a hot place comme moi.)

If you’d like to travel to the Pacific islands of the state of Hawaii, the non-fiction writing of Tony Horowitz is fascinating: Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook has Gone Before (2003) follows the journey of Captain Cook except through modern eyes and with modern transportation. Really interesting and written with a good sense of humor.

The traveling theme continues with the excellent Chasing the Monsoon, Alexander Frater’s 1990 account of how he “followed” the arrival of the yearly monsoon in India. A fun, lively and respectful account of some of the people he met, and the adventures that came up.

For a different take on India, there’s a really good story of a young man from India who came back to his roots from his Australian adopted family via Google Earth and some plain hard work: Saroo Brierley’s A Long Way Home is a good read. (Writing’s not great, but story is fantastic. In retrospect, maybe just watch the movie, Lion. 🙂 )

While you’re out that way, drop into the Antipodes (to me) and have a look at Once We Were Warriors by Alan Duff (1990), an excellent and very powerful novel about Maori life in New Zealand…. (It’s not a happy read, but it’s doggone excellent.)

Traveling further afield, Monique and the Mango Rains (Kris Holloway) (2007), a memoir which tells of the friendship between Peace Corps. Volunteer Holloway and a young village midwife in Mali (West Africa). A very positive and honest take on this particular country…

For another positive take on both the progress in HIV/AIDS treatments and a look at Botswana, try Saturday is for Funerals (2010) by Unity Dow and Max Essex. If you’d prefer a graphic novel of young life in the Ivory Coast, pick up the volumes starting with Aya by Margaureite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie (2007) which show a more typical side of life in Africa and teenagers dealing with typical teenaged issues.

Or you could veer madly to the east on the map and steer your way to North Korea with Nothing to Envy (Barbara Demick) and learn of (the rather strange) life in that country. While you’re out this way, check out anything by Peter Hessler for a look at life in China when he was living there…

Back stateside and if you’d rather travel back in time,  there’s a really interesting book that digs into the history of Frontier Counties in the U.S. (i.e. those counties which have rather low populations so they’re very rural) so you might like Duncan Dayton’s Miles from Nowhere: In Search of the American Frontier (1993). (I happened to love it and would readily read anything else by this author. Published by an academic press, so dense information but very readable.)

And if you’re heading to the beach, then Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea (1955) is a thoughtful short (and pretty easy) read. This is not actually a shell identification guidebook :-), but it does revolve around different shells although it’s a tad more philosophical. Provocative and supportive for women of all ages, but particularly for, shall we say, women of a distinctive age. 🙂

More to come, but this next time with a focus on readings and writings by POC authors…

Hooray for summer!

The Endless Steppe – Esther Hautzig (1968)

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In my last post, I had mentioned that I had fallen upon the Dewey 900s at the library. Such riches that I didn’t even knew existed! Without any more further gushing, let me now introduce you to the title “The Endless Steppe” by Esther Hautzig.

As a child, Hautzig and her family had the bad luck to be living in Poland (now Lithuania) just as WWII was starting up and Germany was invading places left, right, and center. She had come home from school one day, only to be faced with the news that she and her parents and grandparents were going to be sent away to Siberia that same day for being evil capitalists. They could only take one small bag with each of them, and there was very little time of to think of what to include in your luggage. How would you ever know what to pack quickly for an unexpected and unwanted trip-with-no-return to a forced labor camp in Siberia?

Hautzig does a great job of communicating the chaos and panic which would happen if your family were suddenly told one day to leave. Siberia is cold, but how cold? What would the living conditions be like as compared to their upper-middle class life in Poland? Looking back at this with twenty-first century eyes, it’s almost unbelievable that this all happened to millions of innocent families, but it did and this autobiography details the experience through the eyes of a young 11 year old girl.

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The family spend weeks in an unheated cattle car on a train, never knowing where they were going or when they would get there. There were no bathroom facilities, the cars were very crowded with no seats, and no food or water (apart from that that they had brought themselves). None of the passengers were prepared for this (because – why would you be?) and as the train went east, the temperature dropped and the scenery became flat and treeless.

At first, it seems quite an adventure, but as conditions deteriorated, the seriousness of the situation becomes clear. What also becomes clear is that the family and their fellow passengers can do absolutely nothing about their unexpected journey, apart from try to be mentally strong. Her parents (and grandparents) had been of a professional class (her father was an engineer), but as the miles passed, they found out that whatever their professions may have been was to be of no importance in their Siberian future.

The family was separated (never to see each other again), and Esther and her parents eventually wound up at a gypsum mine where her father would be expected to drive a horse and cart, and her mother – who had never worked in her life – was going to be dynamiting the gypsum in the mine. Food was in short supply with watery cabbage soup being the most common meal, and although life is really very hard, Esther and her family survive through the extreme temperatures with few resources. Their privileged life in Lithuania was of little help to them now that they were reduced to survival mode.

This autobiography is an interesting read about a pretty typical middle class family who is suddenly thrown into an atypical situation and how they cope. It’s not easy, but by the time five years have passed, the war is over and the family are set to return. One would think that they would be very excited to get back home and to their former lives, but getting home would mean returning to nothing as their house and possessions would not be waiting. Additionally, Esther had spent five years growing up on the steppe, and to her, it was home much more so that Lithuania would be.

This was an interesting read. I think it’s classified as a YA but the story is so well written that it really sucked me in. Interestingly, the story only came to light when the author Esther Hautzig wrote a letter to a journalist who had written another article about this whole thing, and the reporter suggested to Esther that she write her story down. Hautzig didn’t do any more autobiographical work after that, and in fact, kept well away from it publishing a few titles to do with frugal sewing on a budget.

Despite the YA label, this was an excellently written book about a harrowing experience.