Set on the steppes of western Asia six thousand years ago, Wind Rider is a multifaceted tale of one girl’s coming of age interwoven with a narrative about the first domestication of horses by the Botai people of modern-day Kazakhstan.
Fern and her brother Flint live with the stigma of being the only set of twins in their community. By all accounts, Fern should have been left to die, but, after suffering from stillbirths for many years, Fern’s mother Moss fought against the odds to keep both children. Already an anomaly in the superstitious ahne (a group of families that travel together during the warm months), Fern’s unique personality makes her stand out even more. She’s a strange girl who befriends animals and would rather be out hunting than sewing herself a new tunic.
As Fern begins to become an adult, she envies her brother’s freedom:
Choices, excitement, and honor lay ahead for Flint. I, on the other hand, would no sooner find blood running between my legs than I would be packed off to begin growing babies, tending pots and scraping skins for some young man as reckless and stupid as my bother, who, like him, would not listen to anything I had to say. (6)Everything changes for Fern when she finds a young horse trapped in a bog. Unwilling to let the filly become her ahne’s next meal, she rescues the young horse and cares for her in secret. With Thunder, Fern’s life has new purpose. As Fern experiments riding, she and Thunder only grow closer.
It is only when Thunder is needed to bring an injured Flint to safety that Fern risks revealing her secret. While many in the ahne see Thunder only as a potential meal (and Fern with her animal “magic” as a witch), a few elders are convinced of the efficacy of keeping Thunder as a pet and workhorse. As Fern shows the community all the things that Thunder can do, they become more accustomed to and accepting of the horse in their midst. However, when famine strikes, it becomes increasingly difficult for Fern to justify keeping Thunder.
While this first-person narrative is a bit slow to start — which may be reflective of the pace of the life in this prehistoric community — it evolves into a suspenseful adventure story, in which both Fern and Thunder’s lives are at risk.
Courageous and rebellious, Fern is an imperfect character sure to strike a chord with young readers. Fern’s coming of age is less about becoming an independent woman than it is about growing into her role in the community. When severe depression makes Moss unable to care for Fern’s baby sister, Fern does everything in her power to keep Spring alive. It is only then that Fern begins to realize that the life of a wife and mother is more than just a life of servitude.
More than the story of the domestication of horses, Wind Rider charts the course Fern must take in order to develop the self-confidence to be comfortable in her own skin. While Fern becomes a legend in her own time, her greater accomplishment is learning to see her twin as a friend and partner rather than a rival.
Well-crafted and carefully researched, Wind Rider is a novel that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike. Williams’ descriptions of the Botai people and their life are at once completely foreign and surprisingly recognizable. Her mix of folklore and anthropology, as well as her obvious love for her characters, lend the novel a sense of authenticity.
Read my full review of this lovely book at Curled Up With a Good Kids Book...