By now it is no secret that I have eclectic reading taste. At times I am never sure why I pick up a particular book, or why I continue to read far into the night.
THE TIGER seemed to stalk me, wanting to be read. Was it the many films and television specials on endangered species I have seen? Was it because of the beautiful Siberian tigers? Was it another book by John Vaillant? Yes, yes and yes.
In 2005, John Vaillant wrote a book called THE GOLDEN SPRUCE that remains a steady seller at Fact & Fiction.
This man-versus-nature tale is set in Canada's Queen Charlotte Islands, and features two legendary characters: a uniquely golden 300-year-old Sitka spruce and Grant Hadwin, a logger turned champion of old-growth forests who ultimately destroys what he loves.
So to have another book by this author seemed something to celebrate. But it was about a man-eating tiger on the prowl, killing people, annihilating them--sounds pretty gruesome.
Well, last month, I gave in and started to read, after all I could always stop if I did not like it. Hours later, I could not wait to tell people about THE TIGER.
It’s December 1997, and a man-eating tiger is on the prowl outside a remote village in Russia’s Far East. A team of men and their dogs must hunt it on foot through the forest in the brutal cold. As the trackers sift through the gruesome remains of the victims, they discover that these attacks aren’t random: the tiger is apparently engaged in a vendetta. Injured, starving and extremely dangerous, the tiger must be found before it strikes again. There are three main characters: Vladimir
Markov, a poacher killed by the tiger; Yuri Trush, the lead tracker; and the tiger himself.
Like his first book, THE TIGER is another gripping tale of man and nature that takes place in 1997. We come to know another region and its environmental, political and economic history.
This time the setting is Russia's Primorye province, which lies Northeast of China in a meeting place of four distinct bioregions–taiga, Mongolian steppes, boreal forests, and Korean tropics--where the last Amur tigers live in an uneasy truce with an equally diminished human population scarred by decades of brutal Soviet politics and postperestroika poverty.
Vaillant gives us an unforgettable portrait of this spectacularly beautiful and mysterious region. We meet the native tribes who for centuries have worshipped and lived alongside tigers, even sharing their kills with them.
We learn of the arrival of Russian settlers in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, the soldiers and hunters who greatly diminished the tiger populations. And we come to know the current population, who, crushed by poverty, have turned to poaching and further upset the natural balance of the region.
We learn some surprising theories of how humans and tigers may have evolved to coexist, how we may have developed as scavengers rather than hunters, and how our prehistoric ancestors may have fit seamlessly into their ecosystems.
Above all, we learn about the incredible tigers and the threats they face from loggers and poachers.
Lessons in Soviet history and prey-predator relationships enrich the text and relieve the horror and tension of tracking the man-eating tiger. Vaillant draws you in from the first paragraph:
Hanging in the trees, as if caught there, is a sickle of a moon. Its wan light scatters shadows on the snow below, only obscuring further the forest this man negotiates now as much by feel as by sight. He is on foot and on his own save for a single dog, which runs ahead, eager to be heading home at last. All around, the black trunks of oak, pine, and poplar soar into the dark above the scrub and deadfall, and their branches form a tattered canopy overhead. Slender birches, whiter than snow, seem
to emit a light of their own, but it is like the coat of an animal in winter: cold to the touch and for itself alone. All is quiet in the dormant, frozen world. It is so cold that spit will freeze before it lands; so cold that a tree, brittle as straw and unable to contain its expanding sap, may spontaneously explode. As they progress, man and dog alike leave behind a wake of heat, and the contrails of their breath hang in pale clouds above their tracks. Their scent stays close in the windless dark,
but their footfalls carry and so, with every step, they announce themselves to the night.
Barbara Theroux is the manager of Fact & Fiction, now part of the Bookstore at the University of Montana.