Winner of China’s National Children’s Literature Award, Black Flame is an engrossing, often heartstring-pulling adventure told from the point of view of a majestic, lion-like, blue-black Tibetan Mastiff. Two things kept going through my head as the pages turned swiftly: 1. the novel reads like an older child’s version of Helen Manos’ gorgeous picture book, Samsara Dog, except all the incarnations belong to a single pooch with one life to live; and 2. no child should go through life without a special pet (yes, we’re finally welcoming a little hypoallergenic – achoos away! – kitty arriving home this month!).
Kelsang loses his mother as a puppy and grows up the playmate of his Master’s young son as he develops into an expert sheepherder. Two strangers appear one day, ply the Master with alcohol, and Kelsang finds himself taken away in chains to a city far from the grazing grasslands. He’s made to brutally battle other dogs, finds temporary respite with an old painter who feeds him but barely notices him, is sold again to a greedy dealer who keeps him chained waiting for the highest bidder. Kelsang discovers his great strength, unfortunately in horribly violent situations; he watches other dogs die, some even of broken hearts.
When he escapes once more, he happens upon two campers, one of whom is Han Ma, a kind young man who literally frees Kelsang from his chains of bondage. Han Ma proves to be the master Kelsang has been waiting for, but he will have to endure many more complications before the pair can be permanently united.
For those unfamiliar with this part of the world (like me), Black Flame offers ample opportunity to learn about lifestyles unique to nomadic highlands and crowded cities, not to mention the magnificence of mastiffs. That Kelsang must face so many obstacles before he’s finally granted contentment grows somewhat tedious before book’s end, but his utter devotion and unconditional love for Han Ma is impossible to ignore, and unforgettable to behold.
Having never seen a Tibetan Mastiff, I went looking for Google images and learned that the world’s most expensive dog is believed to be … what else, a Tibetan Mastiff (!), who at 11 months old sold for $1.5 million! That’s not a typo! If the three-foot-tall, 180-pound “Big Splash” is anything like loyal Kelsang, he’ll prove to be someone’s priceless treasure indeed.
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult
Published: 2005 (China), 2013 (Canada, United States)