“The Ginseng Hunter – A Novel” by Jeff Talarigo

A few years ago, I remonstrated with a friend who purchased a health-branded product (herbal tea?) that included ginseng. “It’s an endangered plant! How come everyone wants to take care of endangered birds and ignores endangered plants?” I don’t remember my little rant having any impact.

Why is ginseng “hunted”? It can be farmed, but that is a slow and difficult process. Ginseng is thought to have positive medicinal properties, but it has never been approved as a drug in the United States. (Wikipedia)

Ginseng is featured in the title of this short, griping novel, but its possible endangered status is far from being the focus of the book.

This book is about North Korea and China and the border between them.

The ginseng hunter lives alone, but his memories include his father and uncle who taught him to harvest wild ginseng, and his mother who raised him. He lives in China but carries Korean blood and speaks both languages. He can see the river border between the two countries from his house.

This book takes place in the year 2000. I had to keep reminding myself of this, because so much about it (especially the atmosphere) seems medieval. Famine and oppression in adjacent North Korea are bad and getting worse, and the ginseng hunter begins to encounter starving, desperate refugees – a woman, several men, and a little girl. He gradually realizes that, despite his simple life and relative poverty, he has the power to help or destroy these sufferers.

The outcomes of these encounters vary as the ginseng hunter is drawn unwillingly from his isolation and into what the press now refers to as a “humanitarian crisis”.

The book ends with the planting of a vegetable garden, one larger than is needed by a man who lives alone.

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