The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival

March 22, 2011

By John Vaillant (Knopf Canada, 2010, 329 pages, $34.95
Reviewed by Frances Backhouse

A tiger, wounded by a hunter, returns to stalk and kill the man and terrorize his village before it finally meets its own death in a dramatic showdown. It sounds like myth or legend, but as the subtitle of John Vaillant’s latest award-winning book states, this is a true story, all the more powerful because of its veracity.

Vaillant’s first book, The Golden Spruce, examined the ecological, political and economic reverberations of one exceptional tree’s destruction and won the 2005 Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction. Now The Tiger has picked up the 2011 B.C. National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, this country’s most lucrative non-fiction prize. Both books reflect Vaillant’s acute concerns about environmental issues. “The Golden Spruce and The Tiger are really the same story,” he told the audience at the B.C. award ceremony. “I just told it a different way.”

Despite the similarity in theme, the research requirements of the two projects were literally worlds apart. Not only did Vaillant travel to the remote Primorye Territory in Russia’s Far East, he also conducted most of his interviews through an interpreter. The depth of the information he gathered is a tribute to his journalistic skills and to the talents of Josh Stenberg, whom he acknowledges for his role as “fixer, minder, cultural advisor, counsellor, and historian,” as well as translator.

Vaillant begins the book with an exquisitely rendered scene of high suspense, as the protagonist and his dog move unwittingly through the dark toward their fatal encounter with the Amur tiger that lies in wait for them:

“Then, as the familiar angles take shape across the clearing, the dog collides with a scent as with a wall and stops short, growling. They are hunting partners and the man understands someone is there by the cabin. The hackles on the dog’s back and on his own neck rise together.

“Together, they hear a rumble in the dark that seems to come from everywhere at once.”

Primed by this brief prologue, I was surprised to turn the page and plunge into dense, fact-filled exposition. If you’ve heard about Brad Pitt’s production company optioning The Tiger and are looking for a fast-paced, Hollywood-style adventure, you’d better wait for the movie. If, however, you don’t mind a narrative thread that is spun out gradually, while simultaneously being woven into a meticulously researched and intelligently considered rumination on the relationship between people and tigers, read the book. Vaillant is a master of this writing style, though I would have preferred far fewer footnotes.

Given the current domination of memoir within the literary nonfiction genre, Vaillant’s decision to stand outside this story is surprising and admirable. In a Q&A interview posted on his web site (at, he explains that his initial impulse was to write a first-person travelogue. He stifled it out of respect for the story’s “mythic” dimensions and the people involved. “[The] events are so intense and poignant that I felt as if I hadn’t really earned the right to insert myself into them.”

Instead, he takes us into the events through the participants, focusing on Vladimir Markov and Andrei Pochepnya, the tiger’s victims, and Yuri Trush, the game warden charged with tracking and killing the tiger. Although he never met two of these men, Vaillant creates detailed portraits of all of them. He probes far back into their personal histories and maps their lives in an attempt to understand their motivations and fears during the winter of the tiger attacks.

There is little doubt that Markov, a known poacher, tried to kill the tiger so he could sell its body parts on the black market. But rather than make a villain of him, Vaillant takes the same kind of big-picture approach he took with The Golden Spruce. In this case, he traces a line from perestroika and the dismantling of the Communist system to the widespread unemployment in Primorye that pushed men like Markov into poaching as a survival strategy.

Vaillant is donating part of the book’s proceeds to organizations working to protect Primorye’s Amur tigers, which now number fewer than 400. More important, he has raised awareness of the precarious status of all tigers – not by proselytizing, but by speaking to both our primal fear of these beautiful, deadly cats and our fascination.

As Vaillant notes, “Tigers … get our full attention. They strike a deep and resonant chord within us, and one reason is because, as disturbing as it may be, man-eating occurs within the acceptable parameters of the tiger’s nature, which has informed our nature.”

Subconsciously, we all still remember what it’s like to be prey. The Tiger makes us face that ancient terror.


lynne van luven February 9, 2012 at 8:11 pm

Given all the vituperation, most of it totally unjustified, The Tiger is receiving on CBC’s Canada Reads show, it’s great to see a reasoned appreciation of this fine book. lvl

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