Review by Jamie Stanley
Li Juan knew that the mind-numbingly cold winter she spent living in a “burrow” with a family of nomadic Kazakh herders south of the Ulungur Steppes marked the end of a way of life. The Chinese government wants these people to settle and adopt an agrarian lifestyle. They also want to repurpose the desert scrubland the herders had roamed and turn it into a national park. A metal fence installed along a dirt road encloses this land, evidence of the eight-year Grassland Restoration Project. Li Juan is Han Chinese and a resident of Xinjiang. She lives in extremely modest circumstances (a repurposed chicken coop!) and helps her mother run a convenience store in the Altai Mountain community patronized by Kazakh herders. Determined to contribute as fully as she could to her adoptive family’s day-to-day life, Li earned to dress in a way that would allow her to spend long days outdoors but be able to walk, ride a horse, shovel, and harvest sheep manure. Lots and lots of sheep manure. Although the book lost focus a bit toward the end, I loved this narrative work for many reasons. The self-deprecating humor of Li Juan, her ongoing efforts to settle into the day-to-day grind of her host family, and her clear-eyed portrayals of the Kazakh people she lived with and met that winter endeared all the characters in the book to me. I highly recommended it for older teens and adults.