Tuesday, December 28, 2010

REVIEW: The Tiger, by John Vaillant

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survivial, by John Vaillant. Published 2010 by Random House.

A bookseller friend of mine asked me once what three subjects (nonfiction) would I always be interested in reading about, no matter how many books I already had in my library on those subjects. My answers were France and Russia (I couldn't think of a third) and she immediately recommended I pick up John Vaillant's then-forthcoming The Tiger, a gripping story of life and death in far-Eastern Russia. I ordered it that day from my bookseller of choice and tore into it as soon as it arrived and it remains one of my favorite nonfiction reads of this, or any, year.

The main subject of the book is a tiger attack on a Russian man, Vladimir Markov, in eastern Siberia. He was stalked and killed by a tiger he attacked, a tiger which then continued its assault through the densely wooded, sparsely populated and very poor region; this behavior, apart from being very dangerous, was also considered very unusual and therefore attracted the attention of an organization called Inspection Tiger, headed by Yuri Trush, an outstanding outdoorsman charged with protecting tigers and humans from each other. Trush assembled a team to hunt the tiger; the story of the hunt, of Markov's death, and of the cultural, economic, political and natural circumstances of the tiger and Siberia are what makes up this remarkable book.

The story of the hunt itself is relatively brief and is just the basis for this wide-ranging study of a place and a people that may be unfamiliar to many readers. My own education on Russia and the former Soviet Union is mostly self-guided and I missed much of the material Vaillant covers so carefully here. The story of Russian expansion into the east, the indigenous people and animals already there, the economic forces that push and pull these populations and the cultural forces that push back were all entirely new to me. Vaillant's passionate advocacy for the preservation of the tiger and its habitat are moving and the action is page-turning and riveting. I love how he peppers the story with mythology, history, and anecdotes and stories large and sweeping, and minute and personal. He also asks hard questions of his readers, aware that his audience of presumably largely middle-class Americans will have a hard time relating to the hardscrabble existence he's describing, and forces us to really ask what it means to have to survive under the hand-to-mouth circumstances of the far eastern Siberian forest.

As you can probably tell, I loved this book, and I think there are a lot of other readers who would, too. People interested in Russia are the obvious audience but I would recommend this book to anyone who likes nature stories, adventure stories, true crime and thrillers; I'd also recommend it to people interested in learning about little-known cultures and marginal communities. It's just a good story, well told, with lots of fascinating information and unforgettable people. I'd put this book in the hands of everyone I know if I could. Pick it up; believe me, once The Tiger gets its claws into you, you'll never be the same.

I'm a Powell's partner and receive a small commission on sales.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.