Aisulu, 12, rescues an orphaned golden eagle nestling; what she does with it will determine her family’s future.
Her extended family belongs to Western Mongolia’s ethnic minority population of nomadic, Muslim Kazakhs who herd horses, yaks, and goats, moving upland in summer and lowland in winter. When Aisulu’s brother, Serik, breaks his leg chasing an eagle, their parents take him to a distant clinic. Horrified when their uncle Dulat kills the eagle, Aisulu rescues its surviving eaglet, naming it Toktar. Guided by Dulat and his Tuvan wife, she raises and trains Toktar to hunt. Weeks later, Aisulu’s father returns with grim news: Serik has cancer; they must sell their herd to pay for his treatment. Dulat sees another option: entering Aisulu and Toktar in the Eagle Festival competition. An ESPN crew filming it will pay the winner enough to cover Serik’s treatment. Readers will root for Aisulu and her community, an ancient culture negotiating the contemporary world. However, Aisulu’s story is insufficiently contextualized. In 2014, Aisholpan, a 13-year-old girl, competed and won at the festival, depicted in a 2016 documentary, The Eagle Huntress, well-reviewed and nominated for an Academy Award but also persuasively criticized for falsely claiming, so as to magnify her achievement, that women are barred from eagle hunting. The existence of women eagle hunters is briefly acknowledged here, but Aisulu’s activities provoke damaging, misogynistic bias, expression of which reinforces Western misconceptions and misrepresents reality.
A beautifully told, textbook example of cultural appropriation. (glossary) (Fiction. 8-12)