Excerpt from Wolf Totem by Rong Jiang, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Wolf Totem

by Rong Jiang

Wolf Totem
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2008, 544 pages
    Mar 2009, 544 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Donna Chavez

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Print Excerpt

He sensed that the alpha male was gazing at the hill behind them; all the other members of the pack turned their pointed ears in the same direction, like radar locking on to a target. They silently awaited orders as the unarmed man and his horse pranced boldly past them; the alpha male and his followers were not sure what to make of this.

The sunset slowly faded away as man and horse drew ever nearer. The next couple of dozen steps comprised the longest journey of Chen Zhen’s life. A few steps into that journey, he sensed that one of the wolves had run up to the snow- covered slope behind him, and he knew intuitively that it was a scout sent by the alpha male to see if other troops lay in wait. Chen felt his soul straining to leave again.

The horse’s gait faltered slightly; Chen’s legs and the horse’s flanks were trembling. The horse turned its ears to the rear, nervously monitoring the scout wolf’s movements. Chen imagined himself passing through an enormous wolf’s maw, with rows of razor-sharp teeth above and below; once he was in the middle, the mouth would snap shut. The horse began to gather its strength in its rear legs, preparing for a mortal engagement. But the burden on its back put it at a terrible disadvantage. Suddenly, Chen Zhen, like the shepherd he was supposed to be, appealed to Tengger, Mongol heaven, in a moment of peril: Wise and powerful heaven, Tengger, reach out and give me your hand. Next he summoned Papa Bilgee under his breath. In the Mongol language, Bilgee means “Wise One.” If only the old man would fi nd a way to transmit his knowledge of the grassland directly into his brain. No echoes anywhere disturbed the stillness of the Olonbulag. Gripped by despair, Chen raised his eyes, wanting the last thing he saw to be the ice blue beauty of the heavens.

Then something Papa had said dropped from the sky and struck his eardrum like a thunderclap: Wolves are afraid of rifles, lasso poles, and anything made of metal. He had no rifle and no lasso pole, but did he have anything made of metal? His foot felt warm. Yes! There under his feet were two large metal stirrups. His legs twitched excitedly.

Papa Bilgee had lent him his horse, but the saddle was Chen’s. No wonder the old man had picked out the largest stirrups he could find for him at the beginning; it was as if he knew that someday they would come to Chen’s rescue. Back then, when he was learning to ride, the old man had said that not only did small stirrups make staying in the saddle diffi cult, but if the horse bucked you off, your foot could get caught and you could be dragged along, which could lead to serious injury or death. These stirrups, with their large openings and rounded bottoms, were twice the size of the more common small- mouthed, flat- bottomed ones, and double the weight.

The pack was waiting for the scout’s report; horse and rider were now directly opposite them. Chen quickly removed his feet from the stirrups, reached down, and pulled them up by their leather straps. Holding one in each hand, and calling upon all his strength, he spun the horse around, roared in the direction of the wolf pack, raised the heavy stirrups chest- high, and banged them together.

Clang clang . . .

A crisp, ear- splitting clang, like a hammer on an anvil, tore through the silent air of the grassland and straight into the ears and the seats of courage of every wolf in the pack, like a sword. Nonnatural metallic noises frighten wolves more than any thunderstorm; they produce a sound that has a greater and more devastating impact on them than the snap of a hunter’s trap.

The wolves trembled when the first clangs from Chen’s stirrups resonated in the air. The next burst sent them turning away; led by the alpha wolf, they fled into the mountains like a yellow storm, their ears pinned against their heads and their necks pulled into their shoulders. Even the scout abandoned its mission and followed the other members of the pack in flight.

Excerpted from Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong. Translation Copyright © 2008 by Penguin Group USA. Excerpted by permission of The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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