Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Fire Horse Girl

I am sure that I have written here before about my feelings about historical fiction.  I'll read it, but I usually feel like I'm getting a history lesson, and it is hard to get through the story.  I find myself drifting off, picking up and then finishing other books...that's not a good sign.  But The Fire Horse Girl had me from the very first paragraph.  In fact, the writing was so good that it made me want to improve my writing too.  So before I published this post (and hopefully my posts going forward), I used Grammarly to check my spelling and grammar. It was easy to use and made cleaning up my own post simple. It also offers an online plagiarism checker too.  I still can't compete with Kay Honeyman though!

The book begins this way:

"In Chinese astrology, the Year of the Fire Horse is a bad year for Horses.  All of their worst traits - their tempers, their stubbornness, their selfishness - burn with increased strength.  Girls should never be born in the year of the Fire Horse; they are especially dangerous, bringing tragedy to their families.

But desperation flowed fast and thick through my mother's veins..." (p. 1)

In Jade Moon's village, she was marked from her very first breath.  She's a girl in a culture that reveres males, her mother died giving birth to her, she's the last of her line, and worst of all, she is a Fire Horse.  The entire village judges her every move and Jade Moon feels their scrutiny.  It is a heavy burden.  When she meets a neighbor, Jade Moon "...quickly shifted my gaze to a point in the air just in front of [the neighbor's] forehead.  This was a technique I used often.  It blurred people's faces and kept me from seeing the disdain in their eyes." (p. 7)

Jade Moon isn't stupid, despite what the other villagers believe.  She just doesn't feel like she can fit into their traditions, into the way things have always been.  That isn't who Jade Moon is.  The village blames this on her being a Fire Horse.  Jade Moon already knows "my mind constructed ideas that no one seemed to understand, and my heart held hopes that were far beyond my reach." (p. 8)  She is viewed as an oddity, and her father is having a difficult time finding a match for her.

Until Sterling Promise arrives.  This young man comes to their home with news of Jade Moon's only uncle, who has recently died.  Before he died, he sent Sterling Promise with papers to allow both Jade Moon's father and Sterling (masquerading as his son) to America to earn their fortunes.  Surprisingly, Jade Moon's father tells her she will be traveling to America along with them.  Jade Moon sees America as a place where she can grab her destiny, where she can shake off other people's expectations and become fully herself.  This trip is an unexpected gift, and she isn't quite sure why it has been given to her.

Sterling Promise is an enigma as well.  He is a smooth talker, someone who can talk business with her father and grandfather.  Yet there is emotion below the surface.  And it seems Sterling Promise (how can you call him anything but his full name??) feels the same desperation Jade Moon feels - that need to grab onto the chance to start anew.  It is intriguing, and she knows there is more to his story than he is willing to share.

I really don't want to ruin this story for those of you who will read it.  Suffice to say that I learned many new facts about immigration to America in the 1920's.   I was raised in California, but most of what I read about Angel Island, where Jade Moon starts the immigration process, was new and very stark.  Immigrants much like Jade Moon stayed there for weeks on end.  We all know about Ellis Island, of course, but on Angel Island conditions were very different.  I found this part of Jade Moon's story fascinating.  It is also very painful.

As the immigrants wait for permission to enter the United States, or for someone to come and get them, they spend a lot of time together.  The women's bunk has its share of anger, frustration, and sadness.  So when Jade Moon is asked to tell a story to the others, she knows: "These women needed a story about people trying to get somewhere impossible.  They needed a story about promises kept and broken, a story about sacrificing everything at a chance for something beautiful." (p. 113)

Eventually, Jade Moon finds a chance to get off Angel Island and the story twists again.  In each of the twists of this narrative, there are interesting people, people who you want to get to know further.  But the key to the whole novel, of course, is the Fire Horse girl, Jade Moon.

It is Jade Moon who kept me glued to each page.  All of the things she has believed about herself throughout her life in China - that she is selfish, stubborn, full of temper - are in reality strengths.  She is smart, savvy and a shrewd judge of character and emotion.  Jade Moon isn't afraid to say what she thinks but can also play the game if it is necessary to get what she wants.  America is her destiny.  She asks another character in the novel where stories come from.  Spring Blossom tells her they come from "deep inside me, where we must bury what we desire in order to protect it."  (p. 105).  Jade Moon has always tried to bury her dream of freedom deep inside, but it cannot stay there any longer.  This is her one chance to change the life she has always been expected to lead, and she takes it.  The journey changes her in unexpected ways.

I've quoted liberally from the text because I think Honeyman's writing is so beautiful.  There are gorgeous turns of phrase on almost every page.  Honeyman describes characters by how they look, but also by how they seem and who they are.  For instance: "She looked like a woman who decided things, who molded the world around her instead of letting it push against her. (p. 264)  What does that look like?  This character would most likely look different to each of us, depending on which women we had known.who had that same determination Honeyman describes.  But her assessment is so well-crafted and correct.

The book is a smart use of historical fiction where it doesn't feel like the history gets in the way of the story.  Instead, it is a vehicle for the story - Jade Moon would not be the same in any other decade or even if she had stayed in China.  She becomes more herself through this experience.  And by the end, being a Fire Horse is something to be celebrated, not reviled.

The Fire Horse Girl.  Kay Honeyman.  Arthur A. Levine Books: Scholastic, 2013.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark library
post sponsored by Grammarly

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