Holland, Cecelia. Ghost on the Steppe.

NY: Atheneum, 1969.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Cecelia Holland is one of the premier creators of historical fiction in English, and has been for more than forty years. One of her early books, and still one of her best, was Until the Sun Falls, about the Mongol invasion of Eastern Europe in the generation after Genghis Khan.

The POV character was Psin, khan of the Kipchak Mongols and the army’s General of Reconnaissance, and one of the minor background characters was Djela, his grandson, and son of Psin’s heir, Tshant.

This short novel (less than 100 pages) is intended for young adult readers, but the author never talks down to any age level and it’s just as enjoyable for adults. Psin and Tshant both appear here, too, but this time it’s their turn as supporting characters.

The focal point is twelve-year-old Djela, who is bored with daily life in the small village of yurts where his father and grandfather presently live. It’s only one of a string of Kipchak communities along the edge of the Gobi and there’s absolutely nothing interesting to do, he thinks, except to practice his archery. And he’s becoming quite good at that. Then, in cahoots with his best friend, Makko, he pulls a minor prank — and makes the dreadful mistake of lying about it to his father.

No Mongol can tolerate a deliberate lie, that’s almost the worst personal sin you can commit, and Djela knows instantly that he’s in for serious punishment. Which takes the form of being packed off to the clan’s horse herds, two days’ ride to the north, where he will labor for an entire month. He considers running away but dismisses the thought; they would only come and find him. At least Makko is coming along to share his exile.

When they arrive at the horse camp, the boys hear stories of a “ghost” that has been killing cattle, and which apparently lives in the nearby forest — an extremely alien and rather frightening environment for those who have spent their whole lives on the open steppe. And after the next attack, where Djela is the first to actually lay eyes on the Beast, as they call it, he knows it’s up to him, the son and grandson of great warriors, to hunt the ghost down.

Holland’s style is always straightforward and rather bare, which makes it especially useful in writing a YA novel. The adventure in the forest, seen through Djela’s young eyes, is exciting and well-paced, and Holland transports you convincingly into the mid-13th century. A terrific story for any age.


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