“Stand on the Sky” by Erin Bow is a book that stands out from many other middle grade reads. The setting and the plot are an introduction into another culture — one that seems to be another world from a life where cold food is nuked in a microwave and there’s a Starbucks on every corner. Aisulu is the twelve-year-old main character who lives with her family in Mongolia.
Aisulu and her family are Kazakh nomads and take their herds of goats and horses to wherever there is good grazing. They live mostly on the milk from the goats and horses in summer, and mostly on the meat from goats and hunting in the winter. There is no garden, no vegetables, no microwave. The reader meets Aisulu and her brother Serik when they are searching the hills for his runaway horse. They find it just as a surprise summer blizzard appears. Aisulu bravely races on her horse to get Serik’s horse and makes it back to her brother just as he has created a space in a rock mound for them to take shelter. Summer or not, blizzards kill the unprotected and unprepared.
Aisulu is a wonderful character. While the Kazakh women have their place, Aisulu also longs to do more. She loves riding her horse more than anything, but she dutifully carries water up the mountain and milks the animals while the men (and boys) herd the animals from horseback.
After the blizzard, Aisulu and Serik see a huge female eagle. It’s the mother eagle whose nest they have seen. Serik, angry because his sister noticed he was limping, decides to catch the eagle so he can be an eagle hunter, a special position in their culture. While trying to catch the eagle, he breaks his leg, Aisulu is torn by her promise to him not to reveal that he had been limping. Serik fears that any weakness will make him less of a man and more like the limping goats who end up in the stew pot. There is no place in the nomadic life for someone who is not in perfect physical condition.
But Aisulu knows the right thing to do, and when her parents learn about the limp, they realize that he needs to be seen at a hospital instead of having his broken leg splinted in the mountains. It turns out that Serik’s condition is serious, and Aisulu ends up living with her uncle and his wife while Serik and her parents are at the hospital in the city that’s many hours away. Aisulu is left to care for their animals, milk them, bring them water, and take care of the family home. It’s a lot for one young girl.
There is much that is fabulous about Bow’s writing throughout the book. Aisulu’s uncle Dulat married a women from a different clan. She was Tuvan, not Muslim like Aisulu and her family. They met at college, where each received a degree. Dulat, the head of the family, worked as an engineer in the city before being called back after his father died to take over. His wife’s name was difficult to pronounce, but instead the family called her the Fox Wife, an insulting nickname that meant demon or witch. Yet Fox Wife is the one who makes Aisulu feel at home in their ger, or hut. Bow describes how the ger is made and how Aisulu “tucks it in” at night. She describes what it looks like, just as she describes the way of life. The reader truly feels transported halfway across the world to a life high in the Mongolian mountains. But in addition to the description, Bow uses lovely metaphor and simile throughout the story, both of which create an additional layer of imagery for the reader.
Aisulu rescues the eaglet whose mother Serik had injured trying to capture her, and who Dulat killed because her wing was broken and she’d never fly again. When she brings the eaglet back to her house, her aunt helps her. They don’t know the gender of the baby, but Fox Wife assures Aisulu that “He’s male now, because he will ask everything of you.” Later, they realize that the eagle, Toktar, is female, and Fox Wife says, “Call her female for you will be asking everything of her.”
And Aisulu does ask everything of this eagle she loves. For her brother needs to go to a hospital in Ulaanbaater for rehab, and the only way the family can afford that is if they sell all their herds, their home, and everything. That would mean her father would be forced to work menial jobs in the city from then on to support his family, and their lives as Kazakh herders would be over — unless Aisulu and Toktar can win the prize at the fall festival for eagle hunters.
In the Kazakh culture, some men use eagles for hunting, and it is a great accomplishment to do that. After they hunt with the eagle for several years, the eagle is then released to live a natural life. Women do not hunt with eagles. They do not become eagle hunters. But Aisulu has her rescued eagle. And not only does Aisulu love her eagle, that love is reciprocated. With the help of her uncle and aunt, she is determined to win the festival and use the prize money for her brother’s medical needs.
This book is an outstanding pice of work for the many positive messages readers will understand, including that family is made of those who love and support you. Aisulu earns the respect of those who doubt a girl can be an eagle hunter through her determination and perseverance. But that alone wouldn’t be enough — she also has the support of others, and that makes a difference. It’s also about cultural diversity, and even in this different culture, they are suspicious of the Fox Wife because she is from a different culture. It takes realizing that the Fox Wife loves Aisulu just like others in the family to get her accepted as one of them. And to Aisulu, she becomes not only foster mother but role model.
Readers will love the relationship between Aisulu and her eagle Toktar. They will love the connection between girl and bird and reading about how the two learn together and grow together. It’s simply a beautiful story masterfully told, from beginning to end.
Bow explains that, ” I loved animal books as a young reader — one of the reasons I wrote “Stand on the Sky” was that I really wanted a book like “Where the Red Fern Grows” or “Sounder” to have a happy ending.” The ending is happy, and Bow certainly has accomplished her goal!
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the publisher, for review purposes.