Galsan Tschinag’s The Blue Sky

Then I knew that I no longer had a Dusky, that there was no longer any Dusky, not in the flock and not on the earth. Only a pile of meat remained, and that would not be there much longer either.

Heike Huslage-Koch, CC BY-SA 4.0

The Blue Sky is about a boy born into a simple life, only to find out life is simple for no one, especially as you grow older.

Little Dshurukuwaa is the youngest child in his family. His parents are Tuvans, of Turkic heritage; they carve out their living as nomadic shepherds in the Altai Mountains, moving by the seasons and giving the state its cut. He has two older siblings and an adoptive grandma he loves more than anyone. Life feels just about perfect, and soon Dshurukuwaa yearns for the day he will own his own flock and live in his own yurt with his grandma and his dog, Arsylang, always by his side. His whole outlook on the world is challenged, however, when he suffers several heartbreaks, one after the other. Will his dreams outlast these tragedies, or is this the end of his faith in the deity he knows as “the blue sky”?

This novel (pub. 1994, trans. 2006) was my first encounter with literature from Mongolia. As with so many great novels from around the world, it was the universality of the themes that really grabbed me. In fact, much of the book reminded me of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series—she, too, was writing autobiographical fiction from a child’s perspective, and both authors lived hard lives compared to our modern-day circumstances. Arsylang and Jack are the protagonists’ best four-footed friends, and both Laura and Dshurukuwaa are really close to their siblings, in spite of occasional difficulties. Loss features in both stories, as well as farming practices and hardships. (In Tschinag’s book, the Tuvan community is not a monolith—it is explained how different people approached things in different ways, everything from how they shepherded their flocks to where they did their “business.”) Last but not least, the asides into town life intersect both stories, as Dshurukuwaa watches people move away and come back changed.

The back cover of the Milkweed edition paperback gives all the major plot points away. This was really unfortunate. I would have enjoyed the book so much more if I hadn’t known what was going to happen. The ending, at least, was still something of a surprise and left me on an emotional cliffhanger.

I gave this 3.5 out of 5 stars, rounded up to 4 on Goodreads. It’s not as gripping as, say, Kpomassie’s An African in Greenland, but it carried a sincere gentleness that I did enjoy, and the uniqueness of the setting makes it very worthwhile. There is beauty, joy, and sorrow here, but no romanticism. My reading buddy Blaz and I plan to read the next book, The Gray Earth, which will cover the boy’s experience in boarding school.

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  1. Fanda Classiclit Avatar
    Fanda Classiclit

    Great review, Marian! From the time I first laid eyes on the cover (the boy’s eyes), I knew instantly I would love this book. I thought he’s a Tibetan boy at first, but a nomadic Mongolian family is probably more fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Marian Avatar

      I hope you enjoy it, Fanda! This book really did make me feel like I had experienced another culture.


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