When You Trap a Tiger is a story that roars and rumbles with simplicity, strength, and magic.
The story starts with a car in the rain and the family in it. Lily, her older sister, Sam, and their mother are moving to be with their sick and aging grandmother, Halmoni. As they make their trip from sunny California to the grays and greens of Washington, a tiger from her Halmoni’s Korean folktales appears in the middle of the road—and only Lily can see it. The tiger speaks to Lily, challenging her and offering a deal in exchange for the healing of Halmoni. Faced with the fear of losing her ailing grandmother, the challenge of adjusting to a new town and making friends, and the task of navigating her strained relationship with her sister, Lily must find her voice for the sake of the stories of her past and future.
Murmurs of magic
Lily’s life has always been filled with the magic from Halmoni’s stories—sky gods, tiger-girls, stairs for escaping, pockets of mugwort, and a star-filled sky. It’s the same kind of magic we all grow up believing as kids, but eventually grow out of as teens and adults. Keller harnesses this magic skillfully in shaping Lily’s story, bringing to life the kids we once were through the tales and traditions that are unique to Korean culture. The magic isn’t the swish-and-flick kind, but the more ancient and subtle one that explains both the simplest and most archaic of practices. The book raises its own questions about magic too. Is it real? Are those who believe in it wise or foolish? Keller draws in her readers through age-old myth and the carefully sprinkled magic throughout her novel.
Strength in simplicity
Following the story of young Lily, the book targets younger readers (aged 10-14) as well. It is a simple story told in a simple and straightforward way, but also contains subtler nuances that add meaning and give readers—both young and old—something to think about. Words and descriptions are evocative of distinct images and a wide range of feelings (I felt so many things reading this book). The characters are rendered beautifully with all their flaws and little quirks, making them pop off the page and imbue the book with life as well.
While the story is simple, the book manages to also be a multitude of things, shedding light on different topics in a way that is evocative and accessible to different audiences. It’s about girls and women, for example—their different shapes and their different strengths. It’s about culture—the ways distance and time seem to separate us from who we are (a scary, dizzying thing). It’s about family—the ways we sometimes grow together and apart, but somehow grow deeper in love despite it all. It’s about what it means to grow up—to be whole in the pieces of ourselves that don’t always seem to fit.
When You Trap a Tiger is the kind of book that allows readers to take whatever they might need—a heartrending and heartwarming family story, a mythical coming-of-age tale, a statement on the tiger-like strength of women. For me, it is a reminder that there are so many stories out there that can be overwhelming, but ultimately, what matters are the stories we choose for ourselves.
When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller is available at Fully Booked branches.