Under the Radar: I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade by Diane Lee Wilson
That night, and for many days and nights afterward, I humbly cringed beneath the leer of the red-footed doll. I began to believe in my parents’ prayers. The gods had certainly stamped bad luck upon me. Such was to be my place in this world then: always to huddle within the smoky half-light of a ger, only to watch as others galloped upon the backs of swift horses, to startle and quiver at every passing cloud. My childhood seemed defined by what I could not do.
Then one day, just at dusk, I discovered what I could do.
When she was a child, Oyuna’s foot was crushed beneath a horse. Her parents try to keep her indoors where she’ll be safe, but living on the Mongolian steppes, Oyuna wants to be outdoors and on the back of a horse. After sneaking away to ride a horse too many times, her parents finally give in and let Oyuna ride freely.
In the city of Karakorum, where her father intends to find a husband for Oyuna and promises to buy her a horse of her own, Oyuna thinks she hears someone calling for help as she looks upon the horses for sale. All she sees, however, is horses. One horse in particular, a white mare past her prime, draws Oyuna’s attention. The mare has an injured leg and Oyuna could swear that she heard the horse say, “Help me get away from here.” Oyuna wants a horse she can ride to win a famous race but is unable to forget the mare. She asks her father to purchase the mare for her and later names it Bayan.
“Oyuna, my grandchild,” Echenkorlo continued, “many years ago the horse crushed your leg. ‘Bad luck,’ people say. And they pity you. But I say this brought to you good luck. I say that the horse claimed you as its own. That by crushing your leg it freed you from the ground and invited you upon its back to travel the wind. It is no surprise, then, that the white mare spoke to you.”
When the soldiers of Kublai Khan’s army thunder into her ail to collect horses and conscript new soldiers, Oyuna is horrified to see them take her beloved Bayan. Not wanting to be separated from her horse, Oyuna cuts her hair, pretends to be a boy, and takes the place of her stepbrother with the army. Oyuna and the troop spend miserable days riding the steppes, seemingly dogged by bad omens. When her secret is discovered and one of the Khan’s arrow riders arrives with injuries to himself and his horse, the commander of the troop sees this as an opportunity to get rid of Oyuna. He gives Oyuna the two leather bags the arrow rider was transporting and a paiza, a token of safe travel, sending Oyuna on a journey that ultimately takes her to the Khan’s city of Khanbaliq.
I first picked up Diane Lee Wilson’s I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade four years ago because of its evocative title (note to authors: titles do matter). I’m not a horse person, but “milk white jade”? So I picked up the book, and once I saw it was historical fiction set in Mongolia, I had to read it. And I wasn’t disappointed at all. The book’s title is indicative of the lyricism of Wilson’s writing. The narrative is framed by, and with occasional interludes of, a grandmother telling her granddaughter a story, so the book itself has the cadence and rhythm of an oral tale. If you’re anxiously awaiting Shannon Hale’s Book of a Thousand Days, why not try I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade in the meantime?
Today’s Radar Books schedule:
Finding Wonderland: The Curved Saber: The Adventure of Khlit the Cossack by Harold Lamb
Chasing Ray: Dorothy of Oz from Illusive Arts Entertainment (the Dorothy comic you should all be reading!)
Bildungsroman: Christopher Golden’s Body of Evidence series
Interactive Reader: Christopher Golden’s Body of Evidence series as well
Not Your Mother’s Bookclub: An interview with Robert Sharenow, author of My Mother the Cheerleader
lectitans: The Angel of the Opera: Sherlock Meets the Phantom of the Opera by Sam Siciliano
Bookshelves of Doom: The God Beneathe the Sea, Black Jack & Jack Holburn all by Leon Garfield
Writing and Ruminating: An interview with Tony Mitton and a review of his book, Plum
Chicken Spaghetti: The Illustrator’s Notebook by Mohieddin Ellabad
Semicolon: Under the radar picture books