Cowboy on the Steppes.
Song Nan Zhang.
Grades 3 - 7 / Ages 8 - 12.
Grades 3 - 7 / Ages 8 - 12.
From 1966 to 1968, as part of Mao's Cultural Revolution, seventeen million young people were forced to leave their homes and families to be "reeducated" by working in the countryside. Cowboy on the Steppes is the story of author Song Nan Zhang's older brother, Yi Nan, who, in 1968 when he was eighteen, was "relocated" to a Mongolian commune. Along with forty other young people, Yi Nan was assigned to the Ur Commune where he was to learn to herd and tend cattle. Life among the Mongols on the barren steppes was a far cry from life in his crowded noisy Beijing home. Speaking not one word of Mongolian, Yi Nan was expected to become an expert horseman, memorize the faces of the cattle he tended and, most challenging of all, to protect them from the wolves. Fortunately, Son Nan's brother kept a diary during the time he spent in Mongolia. Yi Nan has added beautifully detailed paintings which evoke the harsh beauty of inner Mongolia during the winter and early spring season. The entries, spanning the time from August 1968 to April 1969, depict a young man who, despite a hard life as a stranger in a strange land, grows to admire and respect the land and people of his new home. As he writes in the book's final diary entry, dated April 16, 1969: "I am no longer afraid. I am a part of this land, this sky and this people. I am finally a cowboy of the steppes."
The writing of each diary entry is sparse and powerful, every incident illuminating an aspect of Mongolian life and of Yi Nan's emotional adaptation to his adopted land. As he has so successfully done in his first book, A Little Tiger in the Chinese Night, winner of the prestigious Mr.Christie's Book Award, Song Nan Zhang has again widened his readers' horizons in Cowboy on the Steppes. Properly introduced, the book might make an interesting comparison piece in a social studies unit dealing with the land and people of Canada's ranch country. The relatively sophisticated language of Song Nan's text, combined with light small print on glossy pages, will make the book unlikely to be read independently by younger students. An excellent map of China and Mongolia appearing on the end pages, however, as well as an editor's note giving the historical background of Yi Nan's relocation, provide good resource material for a pre-reading discussion should Cowboy on the Steppes be chosen as a read-aloud.
Valerie is teacher-librarian at Bairdmore Elementary School in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS FOR THIS ISSUE - FEBRUARY 27, 1997.
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