book review: Adventures of the Ancient Silk Road
authors: Priscilla Galloway with Dawn Hunter
Annick Press; 2009
Tracing the map at the beginning of the book, one sees that the Silk Road stretched from the banks of the Ganges in northern India along a path toward the northwest circling and then cutting through some of the tallest mountains in the world. Exiting the mountains, one would travel eastward through what is now Mongolia, through Sichuan and end at Louyang on the Yellow Rive in China. Gallaway and Hunter take readers down this path several times following the footsteps of Xuanzang, Genghis Khan and finally Marco Polo. These historic figures lived in completely different times, used the road for completely different purposes and yet each changed history in such a way to make it possible for his predecessors to travel the road. Xuanzang was a Buddhist monk who had to negotiate with a variety of leaders (and bandits) to accomplish his journey on the road. Khan used the road to conquer neighboring kingdoms and Polo travelled as a merchant. Adventures of the Ancient Silk Road indicates that each man was successful because he took the time to understand cultures other than his own. As they travelled, the book indicates that they learned the language, tasted the foods and simply observed what was taking place around him.
People of every description crammed themselves into Kashgar’s lively bazaar, and Marco was there with them. Local merchants competed with traders from India, China, Persia and other far-flung countries to shout the loudest and make the best deals. They haggled over livestock, beautiful fabrics and rich furs, lumps of jade, woven rugs and daggers and knives encrusted with jewels. Marco eagerly made deals while munching on the sweet and fragrant local melons. He sold the mirrors from Cominan and bought nutmeg, pepper and cinnamon from India and the Spice Islands. He felt a little thrill each time he made a good trade. (p.130)
While intricate details such as this are often provided, we never know the source of this information. Direct quotes appear in the writing, but they’re never credited. The authors make reference to Polo’s journal in the text and briefly discuss their research that University of Toronto’s library, but they never tell how they were able to incorporate so many nuanced details into the story. Were they provided for effect, or taken from primary source documents? Such information is important for several reasons. First, it validates the information provided. It tells us whether we’re reading fact or fiction. Second, it models the use of bibliographic information to students as important for ethically crediting sources. Finally, it shows our readers that we honor their intelligence.
While Xaunzang takes care to learn Sanskrit to prepare for his journey to India, we never learn what language he speaks. This could easily lead a student in the US to think Xuanzang spoke English. Numerous side boxes are provided with very interesting facts related to the story, however I have to admit to finding them a bit annoying after a while.
I appreciate that the authors provide North American MG or YA readers with an informative, approachable text on men they might not otherwise know. Following the road exposes us to the rich diversity of this region and to the different ways men change societies. I would love to be able to provide teachers a set of this book to study Asian history. The book is fully indexed and contains a list of print and non-print sources for students to use for further study.
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