Although Aisulu loves her brother dearly, she is getting tired of living in his shadow. When an opportunity finally arises for her to shine on her own, she seizes it. While the premise of Stand on the Sky is familiar (two siblings born into a family that prizes sons and tolerates daughters), Erin Bow deftly gives this storyline a fresh and immensely satisfying new spin.
Stand on the Sky is a present-day adventure tale set in the mountains of Mongolia. Twelve-year-old Aisulu is a member of a nomadic community, the Kazakhs; her brother, Serik, is destined to become king and she is expected to milk goats and make butter. Not surprisingly, Aisulu resents the limitations imposed on her by their traditional way of life: “She’d always envied her brother’s freedom to ride out with the herd every day, to ride into high places and stand in the wind.” When Serik falls ill and the family’s future is jeopardized, Aisulu thwarts convention and risks everything to save them all.
Not only can Aisulu ride horses, an activity normally reserved for men, but she has also rescued a baby eagle and is determined to become a burkitshi, or eagle hunter – another activity that tends to be strictly off limits to her gender. After her parents leave – forgetting to say goodbye in their rush to get Serik to a hospital in the city – the eagle she names Toktar becomes her constant companion and source of solace. Aisulu stays with her uncle, Dulat, who wants to train Toktar himself – but Aisulu’s bond with the bird is indisputable. “He was hers, and only hers, and he helped her feel whole even though her brother was hurt and her parents had left her without a word – whole even though her entire world had gone.” Now she must convince the men in her family, as well as herself, that Toktar trusts her enough to help her win a national competition – and the prize money that would pay for her brother’s treatment for osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer.
What follows is a story of strength, courage, and resilience that will resonate with anyone who has ever felt abandoned, alone, or doubted themselves and their place in the world. While researching the book, Bow spent a summer living with a Kazakh eagle hunter and his family and enlisted the help of Kazakh readers to ensure she got things right. Her writing is both lively and elegant, drawing the reader along on Aisulu’s quest and building toward the moment when she will learn if she has what it takes to be a true burkitshi. Bow delivers a jubilant tale that celebrates the power of family, love, and young women.