Escape from the Land of Snows

Escape from the Land of Snows by Stephan Talty presents the story of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, beginning with his humble birth in a peasant family and tracing through his risk-filled escape into India as the Chinese invaded. The story is told as a smooth narrative, pieced together from a variety of books, memoirs, and interviews.

The story is full of fascinating details that you don't get on most reviews of this topic. The Dalai Lama's childhood was far from easy. His father was abusive, his mother bore 16 children, but only 7 made it through infancy. No wonder - his father's temper caused a serious concussion to at least one child. That's not to say that the son's elevation to Dalai Lama brought him to safety. This office is full of tales of poisionings, politics, and other dangers. Far from being a legacy of peace and serenity, past Dalai Lamas were known for their wild carousing and their ruthless manipulations. Against this background, the current Dalai Lama seems truly to be a miracle of quiet.

The reader is told how the progression plays out. When the monks are searching for their new incarnation of the Dalai Lama, they go out with the previous one's possessions, they test the young children to see if any of the boys recognize the items. The story discusses how, when the soon-to-be 14 starts to reach for the "wrong" item, the whole group freezes in concern. The boy then reaches for the correct item. Given how studies have shown even animals are sensitive to this kind of guidance, it makes you wonder a bit about the process of Lama selection.

You also learn about the issues which plagued Tibet before the invasion of the Chinese. The elite were in control, often to the detriment of the locals. The warlord in charge of the young Dalai Lama's area charged a $300,000 "ransom" to allow him to leave with the search group. A quarter of all young men were forced into the monastic life, most at age 6 or 7 before they could make that decision for themselves, and were subjected to a life ranging from extreme boredom to fighting off homosexual advances from elders.

The poor Dalai Lama, brought into this elite world from a young age, could only rarely see his parents. Most of the time he was trapped with elders in a musty, dusty room. He wasn't allowed same-age playmates - he played with mice as friends and if he did something wrong, it was his brother who was whipped. He was so isolated that his only "friends" were the prisoners he watched in the courtyards below through his telescope. One of his first acts when he took power was to free them. And the only reason he was given power was that the Chinese were on Tibet's doorstep. Something had to be done.

I found it poignant that the Tibetans pleaded - repeatedly - to the US for help. They thought that the US was a great liberator, that they could drop in and make everything OK again.

Are there downsides to the story? The author patches it all together in one long, rolling narrative, so you're never quite sure what is coming from his personal interviews with people, what he's only read in third-party stories, or what he's making up out of his own head.

The writing itself can be patchy. You start out hearing about the Dalai Lama's activities in 1959, but there's no sense if he's 2 or 20 or 120. Finally you are told he's 23. This same sort of issue happens numerous times throughout the telling. There's also long, run-on sentences and awkward phrasing. The Dalai Lama gives a "hopeful nod to [visitors] he'd hoped to welcome." Did he do that hopefully? I realize this was an uncorrected proof, but while I was willing to overlook the typos I found, I found it less likely that the numerous sentence structure issues would all be smoothed out. It was more an underlying issue with the way the book had been laid out.

Still, you could of course argue that an important message should be heard regardless of the flaws in the teller's style. I would say that if there was a dearth of tales about this issue. However, there are numerous books out there about the Dalai Lama. You could put together an entire bookstore on the topic, I imagine. So then the question is, should you buy THIS book by THIS author which retells the story yet again from a different point of view?

I would say yes. Accept that there are some imperfections with the storytelling. As compensation, you get to hear of things which undoubtedly many "sanitized" versions would trim out. Here you tell the raw details of what life was like in a remote Tibetan village, as well as the sad, lonely childhood the Dalai Lama had as he tried to please his tutors and loyal populace. You hear how he craved escape as much as he worried about the torment it would cause his fellow Tibetans. It's an important story, and this book puts it into a well described context of world events and personal happenings.

Well recommended.

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