I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade (1999) by Diane Lee Wilson (find it on Bookshop) was selected as a Best Book for Young Adults in 1999 by the American Library Association. I didn’t know any of that when I read the book back in 2000. My copy has since disappeared, but at the time, this was a rare book that I owned. Thinking about it now, my mom must have procured my copy during her tenure as a researcher at Harper Collins.
But enough about me, this is about the book after all.
A quick and dirty way to define this book, oddly enough, is in terms of a cartoon movie. The plot here is similar to the legend of Mulan, which I know from the Disney version released in 1998 (I can’t believe it’s been a decade, good grief). Although her motivations are different, our heroine does follow a group of soldiers while disguised as a boy. The difference? Mulan went to war to fight the Huns. The main character of I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade is a Hun.
At the best of times, living on the Mongol Steppes involves harsh conditions. For Oyuna that is even more true. As a young child, almost beyond the range of her memory, a beautiful horse came near Oyuna. Fascinated, the child knew that her future–her entire life–would be tied to horses. She knew this to be true even as a horse stepped on her foot, effectively crippling her for life. Add into the bargain the fact that every member of Oyuna’s family are now anxious to keep her away from horses for fear of another unlucky incident that will further burden the family with bad luck.
Every family member except her grandmother that is, who (as the back cover convenienty points out) tells Oyuna “The horse claimed you as its own and invited you upon its back to travel with the wind.” Oyuna believes in her grandmother’s words even more when she crosses paths with a swift, white horse.
Positive that their fates are cobbled together, Oyuna dresses as a boy and follows her horse when it is commandeered by the Khan’s army. Oyuna’s path leads her not only to her horse, but also directly to the court of Kublai Khan, and–even more valuable–the knowledge that she has the power to change her own luck once and for all.
If my mom hadn’t given me a copy of this book, I never would have picked it up. But I’m glad the book came into my possession. Oyuna is an arresting character, with a strong narrative voice that makes this work of historical fiction feel very contemporary and relevant. Not an actual princess, Oyuna can’t strictly be called an “anti-princess” heroine. All the same, I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade presents a strong girl making her own way (in a great story).
Possible Pairings: Graceling by Kristin Cashore, The Bride’s Farewell by Meg Rosoff, Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld