“Grandmother! You came!”
“Of course I came.”
“But it’s so far, and with your leg being–“
“Never you mind what can’t be changed. how is she?”
“I don’t know. Not well, I think. She’s just been circling all day.”
“Circling.” The wrinkled face nodded. Papery eyelids droops, then lifted on dove grey eyes flecked with gold. “That is good. Circling brings luck. Circling . . . completes the journey.”
I find it interesting that this is the second story in my Obscure Books From Childhood series about a girl with a crippled foot (the first one being Shadow Spinner). And there are many other books that weren’t including in this reread which also feature girls and boys who are different in some way, be it a deformity, an injury, or something else that physically marks them, sets them apart. This is also one of those stories that I am pretty sure I on;y read once from the stacks of my middle school library, and yet stayed with me for years.
Oyuna lives on the steppes of Mongolia in the 13th century with her family. A horse stepped on and crushed her foot when she was little, which leaves her both physically impaired, saddled with a specter of bad luck, and will likely never find a husband. However, despite her family’s attempts to keep her safe a secure in their tent, she loves horses and yearns to gain one for herself. She spends every moment she can steal with the horses, and eventually her father takes her to a massive horse market. But instead of buying a swift steed to win the festival race like she dreamed, Oyuna hears a plea for help from an old, lame white mare. Unsure if she’s going crazy, Oyuna chooses the mare, and, in a culture that does not usually name their animals, she calls the mare Bayan. But tragedy strikes when Kublai Khan’s men come to take both the best horses and several men to fight in the Khan’s army. They take Bayan and in a desperate attempt to rescue the mare, Oyuna disguises herself as her stepbrother and takes his place among the recruits. It isn’t long before she’s discovered but the commander, rather than killing her, says she’ll be deposited with the nearest tribe they reach. Before this can happen, an injured man appears carrying a message for the Khan, but both he and his horse are unable to continue the journey. Oyuna, Bayan, and her cat Bantor are given the job and they must make a harrowing journey across the mountains and desert to reach the Khan’s palace.
Although the book does have a happy ending, it still makes me cry because there is some bittersweet parts at the end. In fact, I got to cry all over again when I reread it. The writing is lovely and it introduced me to some aspects of Mongolian culture. The commander’s decision to send Oyuna, despite knowing she’s a girl and the Khan’s acceptance of her feels a little too convenient, but it does more or less work for the story and doesn’t cause major issues with enjoying the story. It’s also hinted that Oyuna may have some shamanistic powers like her grandmother, but it isn’t confirmed if that is the case or if Oyuna is just learning to pay closer attention to the world around her. If you would like a horse story that is not set in the old West of the Americas, then you may want to try out I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade.