The Ginseng Hunter (Hardcover)

By Jeff Talarigo

Nan A. Talese, 9780385517393, 192pp.

Publication Date: April 15, 2008



Set at the turn of the twenty-first century in China along the Tumen River, which separates northeast China and North Korea, The Ginseng Hunter is an unforgettable portrait of life along a fragile border.

A Chinese ginseng hunter lives alone in the valley and spends his days up in the mountains looking for ginseng and preparing for winter. He is scarcely aware of the larger world until shadowy figures hiding in the fields, bodies floating in the river, and rumors of thievery and murder begin to intrude on his cherished solitude. On one of his monthly trips to Yanji, where he buys supplies and visits a brothel, he meets a young North Korean prostitute. Through her vivid tales, the tragedy occurring across the river unfolds, and over the course of the year the hunter unnervingly discovers that the fates of the young woman and four others rest in his hands.

Spare, intimate, and strikingly atmospheric, The Ginseng Hunter takes us into the little-understood lives of North Koreans and confirms Jeff Talarigo's immense gift for storytelling.

The Ginseng Hunter is based on actual events that are happening today in North Korea, also known as the DPRK, and along the Northeast border of China, to where many North Korean refugees flee.

In response to this humanitarian crisis, Liberty in North Korea, or LiNK, an international NGO, maintains programs in refugee protection and resettlement, leadership development for North Korean defectors, advocacy to stakeholders in the North Korean crisis, and the empowerment of citizens to make a difference with effective action. To learn more, please visit .

Praise For The Ginseng Hunter

“Jeff Talarigo has a remarkable talent: from some of the most horrific experiences a human being might face, he somehow crafts beautiful, haunting works of fiction. Talarigo [now] offers The Ginseng Hunter, a story of quiet humanity discovered in the midst of overwhelming inhumanity.  ….While Talarigo is an expert at luring us out of our comfort zones to bear witness with him, he also gives us quiet heroes who do not give in, who do not give up. What we ultimately choose to do with both the devastation and the hope that we witness is up to us.”
The Christian Science Monitor

“A harrowing tale of political oppression under the communist regime of Kim Jong-il…. Talarigo has a sharp eye for the intense ties that bind family, and how they are manipulated by oppressive regimes to strip people of their humanity.... There are no neat endings to this psychologically affecting portrait of desire and guilt. At a time when America’s gaze is directed toward the Middle East, The Ginseng Hunter is a scathing reminder of the perils that communism continues to wreak in pockets across the world.”
Chicago Sun-Times

“This brave book, written in starkly vivid prose, is timely on several levels. We are at the moment becoming acutely aware of a growing global food crisis. And we seldom get a window into North Korean lives. The view is painful, but well worth it.”
The Free Lance-Star

"Set on China's fraught, ruggedly beautiful border with North Korea, Talarigo's tense, atmospheric second novel movingly dramatizes the human faces behind political oppression...Talarigo hypnotically weaves [the story] together against a backdrop of stunning scenery and of cruelty, creating a memorable, morally stringent tale."
Publishers Weekly

"Talarigo's characterization of this antihero is both sensitive and understanding. His descriptive prose is such that readers virtually see the wrinkles of the ginseng root, hear the sparrows' high-pitched call, and taste the cold, running stream. By subtly relating the struggle of plant life on the forest floor to the human struggle at the border, Talarigo offers us a novel that is ultimately a study of survival under hostile conditions."
Library Journal (starred review)

“There is a haunting quality of loneliness to this brief tale. It begins as a delicate exploration of the psyche and the existence of one man, but morphs into an equally delicate exploration of political oppression. There is no sudden shift or shock–implicitly, Talarigo makes the case that the personal is political, and the political is personal.”


"Talarigo's prose is as evocative as a Hokusai woodcut."
Los Angeles Times

“At once exquisite and horrifying, a piece of delicacy forged out of pain and the struggle against numbness. . . . There is no denying the loveliness of this book.”
Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Luminous. . . . Everything looks magical through [Talarigo’s] lens.”
The Baltimore Sun

“One of the most honest, tender, and inventive books I've read in years. Talarigo never steps out of culture, out of voice, out of place; and yet this is a universal story, one of love, one of neglect, one of shame. . . . He can find redemption even in the narrowest corridors of the human spirit.”
–Colum McCann, author of Dancer

“[A] meditation on endurance and socially sanctioned cruelty. . . . A quiet triumph.”
Chicago Tribune

"Utterly believable. . . . In Talarigo's hands, the leprosarium and all the humiliations that go with it take on a mythical aspect, while remaining intimate and specific. . . . The Pearl Diver does not feel like a first novel. There is nothing tentative, nothing lacking from this moving story."
The Times-Picayune