Peter Sis, Tibet Through the Red Box (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998)
I received this book as a Christmas present from my oldest and closest friend. She always gives the best gifts, tuned perfectly to either life-long or current interests. When I began seriously learning how to cook Indian food, she gave me a spice box from India, complete with cardamom pods, cloves, coriander, and other aromatic seasonings. After I had hiked all of the trails in my local mountain system, she presented me with a computer program of topographic maps that could expand my outside wandering, as well as my indoor daydreaming. So, after she heard how involved I had become in learning about Tibet, initially through a study of Buddhism but gradually because of a simple fascination with the culture, she must have known -- rationally or intuitively -- that I would greatly enjoy Tibet Through the Red Box.
When I first opened the gift, I did not know if it was meant for children or adults. It held allure for both, and it passed through the hands of each curious one of us -- my husband, our young daughter, and myself. Its brittle parchment jacket is reminiscent of ancient secret manuscripts; and beneath, it coyly reveals a colorful drawing of the forbidden city of Lhasa, true home of the Dalai Lama. This first impression of the book makes it quite special, as what is inside is neatly hinted at, with invitation to enter.
Upon opening the book, it is clear that it is special beyond its cover. Peter Sis says in his opening page, "After all these years, my father is calling me home. I have to hurry. I am back in Prague, in our old house. Where is everyone? I climb the stairs to my father's study." Reading this, we become quiet, and await the tale.
The tale belongs to Sis, writing as an adult, and to his father. Within a red lacquered box, which sits upon his fatherís desk, Sis discovers a diary of thin, old pages, filled with words, passages, and stories that would strain credibility. He finds the many bedtime stories his father had told him again and again -- here, as a serious and first-time telling of real events.
Sisí father was a documentary filmmaker, and shortly after WWII was ordered away on assignment, to a "remote western province of China," which turned out to be the mysterious land of Tibet. The Chinese army was building a road into Tibet, and instructed the filmmaker and his crew to record the construction. This would mean cutting straight through a mountain, the road looking "like a cut into a beautiful cake." After a disastrous landslide, the filmmaker finds himself, his cameraman, and two of his Chinese students, trapped on the other side of the mountain, away from the rest of the team. They head off in the only way they can -- into Tibet. Thus, instead of recording on film the construction of a road into Tibet, he records on paper his travels through the foreign place.
It is a strange land, Tibet, home to wondrous things the men have never seen before. The mountains rise up around them like the pipes in a church organ, and the sky is endless and deep. The beauty and magic of the land inspire them, and when they finally encounter people -- Tibetans they have been warned are barbaric and dark -- they find simple joy and loveliness of character.
Sis tells his fatherís stories of his time in Tibet as if they were episodes in a fairy tale. Indeed, when his father returns home to Czechoslovakia from his long travels, he brings the stories back to his childís bedside. But Sis takes his bedtime story of the giant -- Tibetís Yeti -- and gives it the weight of truth, as seen through his fatherís eyes. The Potala (the official residence of the Dalai Lama), with its endless rooms, rises around us as we read, as Sis describes how his father experienced it, with awe. We taste butter tea, hear the jingle of bells, and smell the coarse fur of yaks -- touching the traditions of a culture much different than our own. Sis transforms these stories into history, and doing so, comes to understand not only this far-away place, but his father as well.
Throughout the book, Sis has illustrated his fatherís journey with colorful artwork that is as mysterious and beguiling as Tibet, often bringing to mind Tibetan sand paintings or mandalas. Color is important here. As Sis moves from page to page -- or from story to story -- in his fatherís diary, he describes the study in which he sits as becoming a different color, changing from red to green to blue to black. "Itís getting darker, and the room is bathed in a blue light." In words that surround the full page artwork, we read that "Blue is the color of water, oceans, and sky, the color of freedom and flying. It was a rare color in the landlocked country of my childhood, surrounded by an iron curtain. A color I could only imagine. The floor in my fatherís room was a deep, dark blue." The illustrations are often mystical and sometimes intense. They reflect well the tales, and give us a beautiful, dusky portrait of Tibet. Landscape turns into a maze, fish grin with human faces, Buddha forms beckon, and masks startle. The images intertwine against backdrops of parchment, creating the feeling of being within a dream -- or fairy tale. My favorite picture in the book is of the Potala, with its hundreds of windows in stark black against stark white. It is one of the simpler images in the book, but it is deep and strong.
Because the book is, most literally, an adventure diary of Tibet, it is appropriate and expected to find a political note about what began happening there in the 1950s. This is artfully done, as the diary notes, "But I feel a great need to hurry to the Potala and warn the Dalai Lama about what is coming. The road is truly an amazing undertaking and engineering feat. It might well bring hospitals, electricity, and technology, but little roads will then go to the lake, to the Valley of the Yetis, to the caves and monasteries. What will it take away?" Without becoming didactic or self-righteous, Tibet Through the Red Box gives us a subtle reminder of the destruction and oppression that have indeed taken place in Tibet.
Tibet Through the Red Box is suitable for adults and older children alike; it is recommended for ages ten and up. It is a fairy tale for all -- with a whisper of truth beneath the fantastic. One can become lost here in the dream of Tibet in another time, tracing eyes and fingers over the intricate pictures, reading the sincere and personal words like quietly spoken mantras.
More information on Tibet Through the Red Box can be found online at www.petersistibet.com. The home page of Peter Sis, at www.petersis.com, offers a generous amount of information on his books, as well as games, excerpts, and animations. Visitors can watch a video on the background of Tibet Through the Red Box, view an animated scene from the book, and have fun finding their way through a printable maze.