Blue Poppies, by Jonathan Falla

912963Blue Poppies is the story of two unlikely lovers who get caught in the turmoil of China’s invasion of Tibet in 1950. Puton is a young widow who came from Lhasa to a very remote town with her tax collector husband, stayed after he died, and struggles to get along in Jyeko when all the other townspeople think she’s bad luck. Jamie is a Scottish WWII veteran who takes a job setting up a radio post in Jyeko to gather news about the Chinese army’s intentions.

Through a monk’s meddling, Puton and Jamie fall in love. Just in time for the People’s Army to come steaming over the border. The last half of the novel is just wrenching, as you root for Jamie and Puton to get back together in spite of the villagers’ hatred and fear and the machinations of a vengeful Chinese major.

Though I know a bit about Tibet’s situation, I didn’t know much about how the invasion and takeover happened. In Falla’s novel, the Chinese army are under orders to sooth the Tibetans by paying for goods, respecting local customs (for the time being), and generally trying to avoid violence. At the end of the novel, Jamie gets a glimpse of Tibetans being lectured about the worker’s struggle and Communist. Mostly, the Tibetan characters seem confused and annoyed. The Khampas group–whose not to distant ancestors were warriors and bandits–want the Chinese out of their country. One character in particular doesn’t open his mouth except to threaten the Chinese. The monks counsel people to just knuckle down and wait for it to all blow over.

The other thing that interested me was how Falla portrayed pre-invasion Tibetan life. I don’t think much has changed in the last nearly sixty years in the countryside. It’s a hard life. It seems like the only thing that people can grow and eat is barley and most everything else has to be imported or distilled from a yak. It sounds like people are just one bad harvest away from starvation. Plus, there’s the wind and the cold and the very short summer. And there’s the mountains, which make travel and trade extremely difficult. It’s probably no small wonder that the way of like in Jyeko is very insular. Rather than using the radio to call for help, the villagers and the monks just increase the number of prayers they make and plaster prayer flags all over the place.

Blue Poppies also helped remind me how superstitious some varieties of Tibetan Buddhism are. Puton is believed to bring bad luck everywhere she goes. Another widow is told that her husband’s fatal eye condition came about because of her harelip, which let in bad luck. Plus the folk remedies and the aforementioned prayer flags. Jamie is constantly pointing out to the more bloodthirsty members of Jyeko that they are up against the Chinese army, the biggest army in the world, and that fighting is pointless.

Unlike a lot of other literary novellas, this book felt richly detailed. I didn’t feel like I was having to guess what was going on. Even though the end was sad (I think that’s a requirement), I really enjoyed reading it. I do wish it had been a little longer. I would have liked to see what happened to Puton and Jamie. In a genre novel, the 227 pages of this book would have been just an introduction to the story. (In a fantasy novel, the 227 pages would have been a prologue. But I digress.) It could have been an epic love story. Still a satisfying read, though. I would recommend it to people who like to learn about places that don’t often feature in fiction.

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