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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #26 (June 22, 2004), page 16.

Romance, faith, and struggle

Blue Poppies

By Jonathan Falla

Delta, 2003

Paperback, 227 pages, $11.95

By Josephine Bridges

Imagine it’s 1950 in Jyeko, a village remote even by Tibetan standards. Two outsiders, one welcome and the other barely tolerated, live here at the beginning of the Chinese invasion. Against the backdrop of a corner of Tibet where "the village lanes were stony and narrow, steep and twisting, full of rubbish and excrement," and "the animals moved lethargically through the streets," Jonathan Falla’s expertly crafted novel conveys what life is like for ordinary people living through events that will later be known as history. Blue Poppies is one astonishing book.

Jamie Wilson, a Scottish wireless operator and former soldier, has been sent to Jyeko to establish a radio station. The orders from Lhasa make it clear that "Mr. Jemmy" is to be kept very comfortable in hope that he will stay.

When Puton, sent to Jyeko from Lhasa with her tax-collector husband, is seriously injured in an avalanche that takes her husband’s life, the villagers determine that she is "dangerously ill-fortuned." The children throw stones and mock her; their parents ostracize her from the market.

Monk, physician, and administrator Khenpo Nima is charged with protecting these two outsiders. When the landlord evicts Puton and her three-year-old daughter, Nima decides that Jamie Wilson needs a housekeeper. As the Chinese government plots the "liberation" of Tibet, Jamie and Puton slowly discover each other.

Blue Poppies is a meditation on the nature of home. Watching Puton, Jamie muses, "this woman might live anywhere and make a home of it — just as he himself could not." But to Puton, a woman with a disability and a child, home has come to mean protection. "Jamie had become a precious part of her defenses, on no account to be jeopardized. He had begun to replace Khenpo Nima."

Blue Poppies is also an exploration of the escalation of war. Pacifist Khenpo Nima puts his trust in prayer wheels and flags. Pointing out a man who is dipping a carved wooden block into a stream, Nima tells Jamie, "He is printing Buddhas." And Colonel Shen of the invading Chinese army asks "the villagers to assemble for an announcement. They had nothing to fear, he stressed. He and his men had come to set them free." But when a young shepherd discovers the corpses of Chinese soldiers in the river, Captain Duan exacts a horrifying payment that begets a dreadful revenge, a flight away from Jyeko, and one last chance to ambush the waiting Chinese army, to which even Jamie agrees.

The depiction of the women of Tibet is one of this book’s great strengths. A woman "known better for her market bawdy than her philosophy" defends an attack on the Chinese army: "There are paths in life where the choices are all evil, where we must climb over the rocks to bring our children to safety." A young woman goads a pompous local official charged with delivering a message from the invaders before he can flee Tibet. "Taking plenty of loot are you, Governor? Lots of silver? Plenty of finery for India, I hope?" When the women pursue him with "jeers and snowballs," Khenpo Nima says, "‘I’d never have believed that.’ Around him, the men of Jyeko stood speechless."

Refreshingly, Jonathan Falla never romanticizes Tibet, which, in a dark moment, Jamie describes as "a land without carts, without roads, without newspapers, without curiosity. Without maps, even … Half of Tibet thought the earth was flat, and the other half didn’t care one way or the other." But Falla also conveys the country’s astonishing beauty — "bare hills of color: caramel, russet and damson topped with sugary snow" — and the spirit of her people. The Chinese captain, who has been promoted to major, remarks their "way of rejoicing in the bleakest surroundings that at times made Duan want to shout an obscenity at them."

Blue Poppies is historical fiction at its best, a profound and riveting tale of romance, faith, and struggle.

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