Friday, 7 October 2016

Linda reviews MMBA Award Winning INTO THE HIDDEN VALLEY by Stuart Blackburn


In celebration of the 2015 M. M Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction, I am personally providing an e-book Kindle copy to a randomly selected winner. To enter the drawing, comment below and include your email address, or leave a comment on the Facebook page announcing this post.  The drawing will be held on or about October 15th.

Until September when the M.m. Bennetts Award winner was announced, I approached the keyboard on my laptop with disciplined restraint. There was a review I badly wanted to write, but as an MMBA Board member, a reader and a judge, my enthusiasm for Into the Hidden Valley would have been premature and inappropriate.  In the 2015 competition, I read more than 60 novels. All three of the finalists and several others were among the best books I had read in years, all worthy of an award. But of the entries, Into the Hidden Valley was a classic example of literary fiction of a quality M.m.Bennets loved and wrote. Yet, most of you have never heard of it. 

Into the Hidden Valley has a Joseph Conrad tone, with a flash of Kipling and the pathos of Lost Horizons, written by an author uniquely qualified to write a novel set in Colonial India during a period of hostilities between the British and the tribal villages which Blackburn discovered to be largely overlooked in the literature  of Colonial India. The author went to India in the 1970’s as a Peace Corps volunteer and was seduced by both India’s present and its past. He declares it a life-altering experience. 

109-year-old Apatani woman- Wikimedia Commons
Blackburn's novel is not just an excursion into foreign territory seldom visited in the literature. It is much more universal than that. While the plot centers on the politics of colonialism and culture clash, the theme is based on communication and friendship.  The reader must not be misled by the book jacket blurb in the early edition of the book:  this is not the story of a son’s quest to understand his deceased civil servant father, but the story of two men of vastly different cultures who reached out to one another seeking a peace that might have been. In that sense, it is a tragedy.

A synopsis of the plot in the author’s words, taken from an interview of Stuart Blackburn by Debbie Brown and posted on the M.m. Bennets Award blog at, with permission of M.m.B.A., follows, and thankfully, it contains no spoilers:

        ‘The book tells the story of two men—a British civil servant and an Apatani tribesman—whose lives intersect in late-nineteenth-century India. These two men, the officer and the shaman, are brought closer and closer until they meet face-to-face and become entangled in events that blight both their lives. The novel explores the power and inadequacy of words, spoken and written. George, the British officer, documents events in notebooks and official reports, while Gyati, the shaman, is immersed in chants that describe the seen and unseen. The officer relies on his writing box and its tools; the shaman manipulates sounds and pieces of bamboo.’
Blackburn continues: ‘Another theme is concealment and its consequences. False family backgrounds are invented, protective spaces are coveted and shamanic language is deliberately confusing. Most importantly, lies are told and discovered, leaving a terrible burden of knowing the truth.’ 
Diorama of Apatani women farmers, Wikimedia

Thus, is two beautifully interwoven parallel stories, Blackburn describes rarely reported events as the British overlords and Indian army confront the native peoples who had migrated south from Tibet generations before the timeframe of the native and settled in the Apatani Valley. The outcome of the meeting between the co-protagonists is predictably sad, but the impact of their encounter carries a hint of hope that leaves the reader enlightened and happy for having ventured Into the Hidden Valley.
Before completing this review, I revisited the book and found it no less impressive than when I discovered it last spring. I was impressed with the manner in which author Blackburn portrayed British officer George Taylor, whose aspirations and values mature from the idealism of his youth into his middle years without sacrificing the continuity of his character.  By the same token, the shaman Gyati faces the incursion of the Outsiders into the Apatani as a curiosity and a threat.  He watches and waits, and seeks to understand.  He has noted in his encounters with hostiles from other tribes that there is hope in the spoken word.  But the success of a palaver depends on mutual understanding, and he does not know the correct words for negotiating with the strangers the tribes called halyang, with their light skins and unfamiliar ways. 

Evidence of animal sacrifice atApatani burial site.
While other elders answer the threat by making sacrifices and chanting to their Gods, Gyati senses the need for a more direct way to meet the future, while he deals with problems in his home village, not the least of which is the hostility of his son. He appreciates the power of words with shared meanings to bring peace among warring tribesmen, but communicating without a common tongue is perplexing, and with no easy solution in sight, he, too, offers his chants and hopes for the best.

 Alarms sound when young men from the tribes leave the sanctuary of the valley for work in the garrison town at Assam, bring strange reports and new ideas home with them. Next, armed teams of surveyors approach the tribal lands.  An elder has observed their team of more than a hundred soldiers and reports at a meeting of the tribes: ‘‘They’ll come. Not this year, maybe not next. But they’ll come.’
1883 engraving of an Assam
tea plantation (PD)

In the meantime, George leaves Calcutta on a steamer and heads for Assam, writing in his journal and listening closely to the speech of Bengali travelers. He describes Assam as a valley pointing an accusing finger at Tibet and Burma. Unwittingly, he shares Gyati’s portent of coming unrest. 

In the following pages, Gyati rises in the hierarchy of his tribe to become a senior shaman, and George advances in the civil service. He has become fluent in Assami. Eventually, he returns to his home in Brighton and stays long enough to take a pretty young wife. They return to live near Assam to a posting in a small town where his wife Catherine give birth to a son and a daughter. Things appear to be going well until a group of Apatani youth in the employ of a powerful Englishman kills one of his servants who had been cheating them out of their wages and flee to their homelands. George is charged with their arrest. One of them is Komo, Gyati’s son.

George writes a journal entry in November 1889: ‘The murder on Crowe’s estate will mean an expedition to the Apatani valley. This could be my chance to make a name for myself. No one has been there yet. I’ll be the first. If all goes well, I’ll bring back the murderers. Catherine will be proud. Maybe even Charles, some day.’  (Kindle Locations 2008-2011).

Of course, things do not turn out as George predicted.  

What transpires when the two men meet is a stirring story of trust, betrayal, intrigue and adventure seldom found in modern historical fiction, told by an author who has spent large portions of his life in India and has captured its history for readers to explore and enjoy.  The quality of the prose is another reason to read this stunning novel.


Stuart Blackburn, Photo from MMBA archives
Stuart Blackburn is an American by birth but a citizen of the world.  In the 1970s he traveled to India as a PeaceCorps volunteer, and his two-year stint there changed his life.  He holds a Ph.D. from Berkeley and has taught at locations around the world.  He is the author of more than a dozen books on oral tradition and culture in southern and northeastern India. His first novel, Murder in Melur, was published in India in 2014. This is his second novel. He lives with his wife in Brighton, England, the birthplace of George Taylor, the co-protagonist in Into the Hidden Valley.

Linda Root is the author of seven historical novels set in 16th and early 17th Century Scotland.  Find her works on her Author Page on Amazon.


  1. This book sounds a really fascinating read, and one that's definitely going on my list of books to read. Great review Linda.

  2. This book sounds a really fascinating read, and one that's definitely going on my list of books to read. Great review Linda.

  3. It sounds fabulous. Great review!

  4. This sounds a wonderful book. Thank you for a fabulous review.
    I'd love to win, but if I don't it will certainly be on my 'I want when I can afford' list.

  5. This sounds a wonderful book. Thank you for a fabulous review.
    I'd love to win, but if I don't it will certainly be on my 'I want when I can afford' list.

  6. Brilliant review, sound very intriguing

  7. Thank you for the review. The book sounds like an interesting change of pace for many of us. Congratulation to the author.