Ghost Moths

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By Harry Farthing; reviewed by Jeannette Hartman

Author Harry Farthing has returned to mountain climber Neil Quinn and Himalayan climbing historian Henrietta Richardson from his first book, SUMMIT, to tell this story of a hidden relic that must be protected and returned to the Dalai Lama.

The relic is a kapala, a decorated skull used in Buddhist rituals or to hold sacred texts or prophecies. It is uncovered in 1950 by an eight-year-old Tibetan boy harvesting Yartsa Gunbun, the fungus-infected caterpillar of the ghost moth used in Tibetan folk medicine.

That day the Chinese Army takes over his town.

Years later, a monk-scholar, Geshe Lhalu tells him, “Like a ghost moth, you must fly far from this soil to escape the fungus that consumes us all. Like a ghost moth, you must take the seed of our survival and hide it anew. Only alone and unseen like a ghost moth will you be able to do this. For the past to determine the future, it must survive the present.”

At the heart of this book is the question: who will succeed the 86-year-old 14th Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso) when he dies.

Traditionally, the search for the Dalai Lama’s reincarnated successor is led by the Panchen Lama. The Dalai Lama himself leads the search and selection for the Panchen Lama.

In May 1995, the current Dalai Lama selected Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the 11th Panchen Lama. Three days later, the six-year-old child and his family were taken into custody by Chinese authorities. Gehun Choekyi Nyima has not been seen in public since.

The Chinese named Gyaltsen Norbu the 11th Panchen Lama, giving the Chinese the power to select the 15th Dalai Lama.

Farthing relies heavily on a new character, journalist Beth Waterman, to give background about the Dalai Lama and the two Panchen Lamas.

She comes to Dharamshala to interview the Dalai Lama for a story in Rolling Stone magazine. She sees posters about the missing Panchen Lama, and notices the ghost moth symbol on them.

But when she sits down to write, she’s told the story has been canceled. She’ll be paid and given a ticket home, but there will be no story. She believes a Chinese advertiser in Rolling Stone has killed the story.

But tell a journalist no, and you’ll stoke her curiosity to go forward.

Beth heads to Kathmandu to learn more. In the office of a Tibetan businessman living in Kathmandu, she spots a photograph of several climbers. One of them, Christopher Anderson, has a patch of a ghost moth on his clothing. She’s told to seek out Neil to learn more.

The pair become part of the lineage of Ghost Moths helping to protect Tibetan relics and the Dalai Lama.

Paced like a thriller, this story weaves between the 1950s and 2014. It carries readers from the slopes of 26,335-foot Shishapangma in Tibet to 27,838-foot Makalu, on the border of Nepal and Tibet; and from Dharamsala in Northern India to Kathmandu in Nepal.

It includes scenes of terrifyingly thorough Chinese surveillance technology; bodies (living and dead) being thrown out of a helicopter; a self-immolation; evidence of a secret program to train Tibetans in Colorado to fight the Chinese in Tibet; riots; and the discovery of a hidden child goddess.

In short, this is a busy, choppy plot that is also entertaining, suspenseful reading.  A  highlight of the book is a glimpse of Henrietta’s past and great love. (Henrietta is a clear stand-in for famed Nepalese Himalayan archivist Elizabeth Hawley.)

SUMMIT is certainly a more credible book and offers more opportunity for character development than does THE GHOST MOTHS. But author Harry Farthing has done a good job of blending history with fiction here.

#harryfarthing. #jeannettehartman. #theghostmoths

About the Author: Harry Farthing (1964 – )

Harry Farthing is an Englishman with a lifelong interest in exploration, mountain climbing and history. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and has traveled to such extreme environments as the Sahara Desert, the Himalayas, the Amazon and the Arctic.

He is an experienced mountain climber who has climbed Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn in the Alps; Mt. McKinley in Alaska; Shishapangma, in Tibet; and Mount Everest.


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