I discovered this book while shelving at work one day and I am so glad that I did. Fantasy has always been my favorite genre, but I think that, after reading I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade by Diane Lee Wilson, I can say that both Fantasy and Historical Fiction are my favorite genres to read - as long as the historical fiction is as well written and compelling as Wilson's magnificent book is. I am not a horse person, especially not in literature. Horses are such noble, majestic creatures to me that I can't bear it when anything bad happens to a horse in a story, and, in the interest of plot, that usually occurs at some point in almost any animal story. However, the intense relationship that can exist between horses and humans does make for great reading, and there is plenty of that in I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade and an intrepid, amazing cat as well!
Framed by the story of a grandmother and granddaughter in a stable waiting for a beloved white mare to give birth outside of Hangchou, China, AD 1339, we are introduced to the young Oyuna. Born in Mongolia, Oyuna's family is part of an ail, a group of herdsmen and families that travel and camp together. Wilson's book is peppered throughout with Chinese/Mongolian words and their is even a glossary in the back of the book. However, her writing is so seamless and descriptive that I zoomed along without even realizing there was a glossary until I was half way through the book. At a young age, Oyuna's foot is crushed under the hooves of a black mare. When her mother reaches her, she wraps the bloody foot in a sky blue scarf, the color of luck. Good luck and bad luck and the inviting in and fending off of one or the other are a tremendous part of the lives of Oyuna and her people. The crushing of her foot and the resulting limp are considered bad luck but for Oyuna, she says it was "my birth into the realm of the horse." However, from that day on she is kept away from the horses, "wrapped inside the thick felt walls of our ger (tent)" like a newborn baby is wrapped in protective felt layers. She is taught domestic chores, but soon finds way to wander from her ger and spend time with the horses that she loves, despite the bad luck a horse brought to her.
One day at a meeting, Oyuna notices a boy "sitting proudly upon a prancing brown horse. Around the horse's neck was tied a shiny scarf of sky blue silk." Oyuna's mother tells her that he won the scarf by winning the long race at the festival. From that day on, Oyuna's one dream is to win the long race and make her mother and father proud of her instead of ashamed of her difference. Soon, she is competent and comfortable enough that she can work among her relatives without them pointing at her and the shaman no longer comes to perform purification rites to rid her of her bad luck. Oyuna thinks she has shaken off her bad luck, but more is to come. Led by her cat, Bator, which means "hero" (at a time when the naming of animals was unheard of) Oyuna rushes to a the dry creek bed to rescue a goat as a storm approaches. Frantic with worry, her mother rushes out onto the steppe and is stuck by lightening. An elaborate burial ceremony is performed that might be disturbing to younger readers. Oyuna's mother is buried with her mare and the mare's foal so that she will always have milk in the afterlife.
Oyuna's father eventually remarries and takes Oyuna to the festival at Karakorum where he intends to buy her her own horse and to find her a husband. There she hopes to find the horse that will help her to win the long race. Instead, she comes home with a wounded white mare that speaks to her and asks for her help. By winter's end, Oyuna has named her mare Bayan, which means "rich with beauty and goodness." No long after Bayan enters her life, the outcast shamaness Echenkorlo, Oyuna's mother's mother, arrives with a prophecy for Oyuna. After instructing her never to lose Bayan, Echenkorlo tells Oyuna that she will soon journey a long distance south where ten thousand white horses graze. She teaches Oyuna as much as she can about herbs and roots and gives the girl supplies for her journey as well as herbs to heal Bayan's leg. Oyuna's hopes are crushed again when soldiers from Khan's army arrive in at their ail and take all the men, boys and horses they want to add to their numbers. Despite her age, Bayan is captured and hobbled by the soldiers. Next, the soldiers come for Oyuna's stepbrother. Knowing that his loss will destroy her stepmother and desperate to stay with Bayan, Oyuna takes her brother's clothes, chops off her braids and heads out of the ger to join the other soldiers. Soon she is back on Bayan, with Bator tucked inside her del, a long and brutal ride ahead of her.
Oyuna's gender is soon discovered by the Commander and it seems like her luck continues to turn bad when an arrow rider (a kind of pony express used by Kubla Kahn) arrives on an injured horse. Insisting that the soldier with the swiftest horse carry on for him, Oyuna volunteers. She is given two heavy saddle bags and a large gold paiza, a medallion that shows she rides for Khan and ensures her protection. Frantic to find Bator, who is off hunting, Oyuna hesitates and almost has the mission taken away from her. She is forced to leave without her cat so that she can keep her mare. The middle part of the book is taken up with her travels south, which are charged with danger, from the geography, the people and the weather. The end of Oyuna's journey is bittersweet, but by the time she has reached Khan and made her delivery, the reader soon comes to see that Echenkorlo's prophecy was about much more than finding a swift white horse to win the long race and Oyuna's story is far from over. Wilson believably and breathlessly adds more to her story, allowing her to "finish what was started. To close the circle." Urged on by dreams of Bayan racing with a boy on her back, Oyuna does just that. And, just like young Oyuna, Wilson closes the circle of her story that began in a stable with a grandmother and granddaughter awaiting the birth of a foal. As Grandmother Oyuna finishes telling the story of her young life and struggle to be herself to her granddaughter she looks into her granddaughter's face. When "one brown eye timidly stared back; the other strayed weakly aside," Oyuna acknowledges that her granddaughter, too, is different and teased for it. But, Oyuna reminds her granddaughter of the words that Echenkorlo spoke to her, urging her to reach out and make her own luck, to "listen with your heart instead of your ears. And always, always follow your own path." For Oyuna, this path leads her to the best place possible - a life filled with an profound, comforting love for family and and equal love for horses.
Alternate covers for I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade:
Other books by Diane Lee Wilson: