Book review: "Wolf Totem: A Novel" 

Set in the 1960s in Inner Mongolia, Wolf Totem's narrator is Chen Zhen, a Beijing student who, as part of Mao's Cultural Revolution initiative, moves to the grasslands to study the habits of the nomadic Mongolian herdsman culture.

There, over the years, he witnesses what happens when herdsman culture is overtaken by agrarian society, and how the habitat is devastated in the process.

He meets and befriends Old Man Bilgee, a Mongolian elder who becomes his mentor, the man who teaches him about the essential importance - environmentally and spiritually - of wolves.

Early in the novel, Bilgee teases Chen Zhen: "You're like a sheep. A fear of wolves is in your Chinese bones."

Chen Zhen becomes obsessed with wolves, reading everything he can about wolves in Mongolian mythology, but moreover by studying them in their natural habitat.

He learns about the delicate balance of the grassland ecosystem. While many do fear wolves - especially outsiders such as himself - wolves are the keystone species on the grassland. And as the outsiders begin to invade the grassland, Chinese attitudes toward wolves and nomadic culture begin to create friction.

The Chinese want to eradicate the wolves, because the wolves attack and kill their horses, eat their sheep and make their lives miserable.

But as Bilgee - and later Chen Zhen - tries to explain to the outsiders, if the wolves die, then the marmots and the mice take over, and before long, the grassland will become a wasteland.

Wolf Totem, at 500 pages, is a great yarn - perfect for a summer beach. While the dialogue is occasionally wooden, the action passages where the wolves are attacking will raise the hair on the back of your neck. It's bloody and violent and sometimes heartbreaking to read.

You can read this book any way you want. It's an insightful - and sometimes excoriating - look at China: its character, attitudes and flaws. It's a book of history about a pivotal moment in time about a country now poised to lead the world. It's a book about the necessity of balance in the ecosystem. Or, it's a book about wolves. How intelligent; how fierce; how resilient.

Author Jiang Rong lived this life. He was Chen Zhen. And he returned to Chinese city life with the teachings of the wolf totem intact. Eventually, he wrote about his experiences, and Wolf Totem sold millions in China, and now reaches us, to tell its story, teach its lessons, but mostly to honor the wolves so that we can understand more fully their essential role in the world.

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Jim Poyser

Jim Poyser

Jim Poyser is Executive Director of Earth Charter Indiana, a statewide organization that was one of over two dozen nonprofit partners in Greening the Statehouse. A former managing editor of NUVO, he won HEC’s Environmentalist of the Year Award in 2013.

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