The soldiers aim their torches at Eve’s head and I remain in the darkness under her thick fur. The strands tickle my neck. A soldier steps closer and Eve snorts at him. He shuffles forward.
Eve heaves herself up, sending straw and wooly hair flying. She lunges her head, catching his side with her huge horns.
The solider growls and takes a step back.
I hold my breath. I can see his feet on the other side of Eve. Drops of sweat gather on my forehead.
The soldier bends down and plunges his hand into the straw. His head is blocked from my sight by the fur hanging from Eve’s belly.
Tash lives in Tibet. It is difficult to have a childhood when there are rules against running, and singing, and freedom of speech. She protests about the occupation of her country any way she can. Shouting ‘Dali Llama’ at soldiers? They shouldn’t have stopped her running. Sam wishes Tash would be more careful, but he has secrets of his own.
Then a man sets himself on fire, to draw the world’s attention to the occupation of Tibet. A series of arrests begins. Tash’s parents know they are on the list. Tash’s father writes and circulates a resistance newsletter. Tash is told to run.
Sam joins her. With a pair of yaks at their side, they disguise themselves as nomads and set off on the long journey to India. Surely the Dali Llama will help them? Tash’s parents gave themselves up in his name.
Protesting makes Tash feel empowered. Like the man-on-fire in miniature, she doesn’t want to give in to the military orders. Butterworth explores the nature of protest. Is protest about the act itself, or is it about the outcome? Tash and Sam want the same outcome, but respond to their situation in different ways. I love Sam. He is a steadying presence to Tash’s riot of anger, like the Yaks who plod by their sides.
The adventure is two-fold. Suspense is created in different ways – we are rooting for Sam and Tash, hoping they will reach India without being caught by the military, or military informers. At the same time, we are uncertain whether Tash’s parents survived the raid which split up the family. Throughout the book, our breath is held as we hope for their reunion. Alongside this, Tash and Sam decode a hidden note from Tash’s father. Just what is he up to? Can Tash and Sam decode the note in time to finish his job?
Throughout the book, Yaks are comforting presence. Eve and Bones walk alongside Tash and Sam. The children hide within their animal friends’ fur, protecting themselves form soldiers and frostbite. There is a sense of how important yaks are within the culture. Yak dung is used to light fires, yak hair to counter snow-blindness. Every reference to yaks is a reassurance, and a reminder that traditional culture prevails despite attempts to eradicate it.
Butterworth brings the culture to life through detail. Prayer flags and butter tea, spices and yak bells, this is a novel best experienced with all five senses. Butterworth spent her childhood in the Himalayas. From the mountaintop skylines to the night skies, it is clear this is a landscape Butterworth knows and loves.
It was good to see a strong standalone. When I learned of this middle grade adventure, I assumed it would be part of a trilogy. So many books of this size are. Although I am a sucker for a trilogy, it is nice to find an book with a satisfying narrative which concludes in the space of novel. I would love to read more about the culture, but if I wasn’t left craving more it was because the story felt complete. A strong start for a debut author. I’m certainly craving more from Butterworth.