By Maureen Tai, 16 October 2017
“I shiver. It is up to us now. And even when we do get home, it will be different. A man set himself on fire and nothing will be the same again.” – Tashi
Don’t be fooled by the cute, cartoon-like illustrations on the cover or the intricate line drawing of Tibetan mandalas at each chapter break.
The story of Tashi, a young Tibetan girl who flees to uncertain safety across the Himalayan mountains, begins with an encounter with Chinese soldiers bearing names that hint at simmering brutality – Spaniel, Wildface and Dagger. This is immediately followed by a harrowing incident that is revisited as a memory over and over again throughout the book, ensuring that the Man on Fire is for us, as it is for Tashi, never far from the recesses of our minds. The burning man simply cannot be unseen.
The term “self-immolation” is never used in the book. It is explained in a single sentence at the back of the book as “the act of offering oneself as a sacrifice by fire,” making it almost poetic. These are heavy themes – the fiery self-sacrifice, the imprisonment of one’s parents, the fight for political freedom, the terror of government and police brutality, the desperate quest for survival in punishing natural conditions and the unexpected loss of a loved one – all of which are explored in this middle grade adventure story. Words are chosen carefully so that younger readers, who you’d hope have never witnessed violent political clashes or experienced life-threatening situations, are given a taste of a brutal reality without it being sugar-coated or dumb-downed.
Driven by a singular mission to reach the Dalai Lama in exile in India, Tashi is accompanied by her loyal companions – a similarly aged resistance fighter called Sam, a domesticated yak called Eve (who doubles as Tashi’s trusty steed and snuggle toy) and Eve’s yak friend called Bones. Tashi’s resilience and unwavering belief in her chosen path drive her forward, even as moments of impetuousness bring about dangers that threaten to permanently end her quest. Readers, particularly girls, will find in Tashi a heroine with whom they can relate with, through whom they can glimpse life in a repressive regime and very possibly, whom they will not easily forget.
For ages 9 and up.