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Book Notes: 'Falling to Heaven' by Jeanne M. Peterson a beautiful look at Tibet

November 5, 2010

By Rae Francoeur
GateHouse News Service
November 4, 2010

"Falling to Heaven," by Jeanne M. Peterson.
Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2010. 326 pages. $24.99.

Jeanne M. Peterson’s novel "Falling to Heaven" is
a beautifully executed but wrenching reminder of
the early days of China’s takeover of Tibet and
the attempted annihilation of its Buddhist
culture. The story is set in Tibet and Kathmandu in the mid- to late-1950s.

A young American Quaker couple hikes into the
small village of Shigatse, Tibet, where they
intend to take up temporary residence. Emma’s
beloved father died when she was young while he
was climbing in the Himalayas. She wants to
spiritually reconnect with and honor the man whose body was never recovered.

Emma and her husband (he’s also her step-brother)
Gerald, a young doctor, settle into quarters lent
to them by a local nobleman. It’s not long before
they befriend a neighboring couple, Rinchen and
Dorje, and their children. For a short time life
is peaceful, and Emma and Gerald find much about the culture to embrace.

But the Chinese have already begun to move in.
They have their eyes on the Western couple,
perceived as a threat, as well as Dorje and his
family. Dorje is half Chinese, which makes him a
bit of an asset. The Chinese want to use him to
communicate the virtues of the new communist
regime to the countrymen the communists seem to abhor.

There are many fascinating threads to the
suspenseful plot, but the primary storyline is
Gerald’s imprisonment by the Chinese. He’s
captured, along with a frightened teenager.
Lobsang fought back when the Chinese came for his
frail father. They also captured the aged
Buddhist monk Tenzin. This is Tenzin’s third
imprisonment. As readers will see, imprisonment
means round after round of body-breaking torture
on top of hard labor, meager rations and filth
that feeds unrelenting infection. Peterson
dramatically shows how physical assault on all
fronts penetrates spirit and psyche. The Buddhist
practices and beliefs, however, can safeguard the
soul if continually executed. It’s a demanding
discipline but the Tibetans are devout. It seems
the Chinese couldn’t have picked more resistant opponents.

It’s as if author Jeanne M. Peterson channels her
characters, so steeped in the culture and so tied
to the terrain are they. From the rituals of
preparing and drinking butter tea to the love of
mountain silence to the Buddhist sky death given
to one of the lamas after being shot in a battle
with the Chinese, the ways of these Buddhists are
portrayed with tremendous insight and understanding.

The author’s most noteworthy accomplishment is
the way she brings us into the minds of her
characters. We are with them at the height of
their struggles with grief, despair during
torture, conflicts over the use of violence, the
maddening politics, and more. It’s during these
moments we get the greatest understanding of the
people, the cultural norms and the severity of
the situation. Peterson’s writing, in particular
the cadence of her sentences and the pacing, is
like music in the way that it carries you along,
lifting and dashing as she wishes.

Peterson is a clinical psychologist living on the
West Coast. She worked for years with victims of
torture and communist re-education from all over Asia.

Rae Francoeur can be reached at Read her blog at or her book,
“Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” available online or in bookstores.
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