Kidlit Review: Black Flame by Gerelchimeg Blackcrane

Black FlameBlack Flame written by Gerelchimeg Blackcrane, translated by Anna Holmwood

From GoodReads: A compelling novel set in Tibet, Mongolia, and China, about the adventures of a fiercely powerful yet lovable Tibetan mastiff. Kelsang is just a tiny puppy when his mother dies after a vicious fight with a snow leopard. As he grows he becomes a prize sheepdog, roaming the northern Tibetan grasslands with his master Tenzin. But one day visitors ply Tenzin with drink and convince him to sell his beautiful, purebred dog. In no time Kelsang finds himself chained up in the back of a jeep traveling far from everything he knows. A series of adventures take Kelsang from the streets of Lhasa to brief refuge with an elderly painter and finally to his new master Han Ma, who inspires his love and loyalty. Through it all Kelsang longs for the freedom of the grasslands. Black Flame proudly takes its place among much-loved classic dog stories.

I want my review of this book to just be go read this book. Everyone needs to read it, so go read it. I’m not even a dog person and I loved it and now I want a dog. Seriously. But of course not everyone will like this book and sometimes I feel like I am not nearly discerning enough when it comes to reading and I generally like everything. I think what was really different about this book was how I liked it as a reader and not as a librarian reading it. I’m a sucker for animal books (and I think this is why I often hate adult literature, not enough animals), what can I say?

Okay, what I can say about the book (besides how amazing it is) is that I think Blackcrane must actually be a dog. I don’t know how he made this book sound so true to what a dog would be thinking and how a dog would feel. The book isn’t a talking animal story. Kelsang lives in the world as we know it and the story obeys all rules of this world. But the omniscient narrator sure gets in his head and explains dog behavior and dog emotions using language in a way that felt very, very natural and realistic. There wasn’t any philosophizing. There wasn’t any twee dog talk. No dumbed-down dog here either. Kelsang was smart, but still an animal living (mostly) in a human world. Blackcrane captures Kelsang’s desire to have a master and purpose, but also his ability to live on his own and fend for himself. Through getting into Kelsang’s mind you hear why he chooses to take the actions he does, like howling or pacing or running. It’s show and tell used in an incredibly effective way.

There is violence and death. Kelsang fights and kills other dogs. He also fights wolves (to protect his flock of sheep) and kills small rodents. Primarily he does this out of survival instinct and out of a sense of duty. But all the fights are given from Kelsang’s perspective and because of the place of instinct and survival and naturalness of much of this violence the fights never seem overly gory, unnecessary, or horrifying. That may also be in part due to the fact that you become very attached to Kelsang and his story.

The book had the feel of a classic to it or a book written in English back in the 1950s or 60s, but because it was from Kelsang’s perspective it was a lot less insipid than those boy-and-his-dog-who-dies stories from that era (Kelsang survives the book and gets a happy ending). It was beautifully written and there was plenty of action and adventure, but there were also undertones of environmentalism and speaking against animal cruelty. The pace wasn’t exactly slow, but it wasn’t completely plot driven either. I managed to read it in about four hours over the course of two days. For this reason it may not be suited to reluctant and struggling readers. It’s just a little too dense. But I would highly recommend that kids interested in dogs pick it up, reluctant or not. Just don’t give it to your tenderhearted readers (or at least warn them). Boys may really click with this, although I hate to label anything a “boy book”.

Black Flame was actually originally written in Chinese (Mandarin?) and translated books can be hit or miss. This is definitely hit. Holmwood did a beautiful job translating all this into English. If you aren’t familiar with the geography of China (I’m guessing the majority of American school children are not) it’s well worth getting out a map to look at the places Kelsang goes to on his journey. Even better, do it online so you can look at pictures of these places too.

Lastly, that cover is gorgeous. Kelsang is supposed to be a massive Tibetan mastiff with beautiful black fur that shines blue in the light. He’s domesticated, but still has a feral streak running through him. I think the cover does both the book as a whole and Kelsang justice.