[Book Review] The Blue Sky
This title is the next one in the Seedbank Series from Milkweed Editions. The series “gathers works of literature from around the world that foster conversation and reflection on the human relationship to place and the natural world—exposing readers to new, endangered, and forgotten ways of seeing the world.” The publisher offered me my copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
If I asked you, “Where is the Altai?” would you know? Nor did I; I had to look it up. The Altai mountains are where Russia, Kazakhstan, China, and Mongolia meet. The region is also home to the Tuvan people, nomadic tribes of herders, for whom the big, blue sky is sacred[^1]. The mountains, too, are sacred in their own way, with the earth and the rivers providing everything the Tuvan people need.
Milkweed Books recently republished The Blue Sky by Galsan Tschinag, a prolific writer, teacher, and shaman from the Altai mountains. From the opening pages, the reader gets a sense of how spacious the world feels, especially when seen through the eyes and ears of a young child. The boy is shaken by vivd dreams, delighted with breakfast, and happy to spend time with his dog. The warmth and poetic language gives a sense of listening to stories in the yurt. The book is peppered with words in Tuvan, Mongolian, and Russian left untranslated, reminding the reader that this story is being retold in a different language. (Note that many of the commonly repeated words are listed in a glossary appendix, for the curious reader).
Here is an example, from the scene where the boy's beloved Grandma passes away, bringing him face-to-face with the waves of change that will come with growing up. The author, this time, translates for us what he hears:
[T]his quiet did not last long. Father broke it: “Höörküj awam dshoj bardy oj!” — Poor sister has left!
He whispered loudly, which may be why it sounded frightening, as if he has hissed. Mother jumped: “Uj dshüü didri sen?!” — Oh, what are you saying?
These two exclamation of shock are locked in my memory like incantations, and, along with rhymes, proverbs, songs, and other well-shaped sayings, have accompanied me through life without being dulled by the passage of time...[^2]
It took me until about halfway through — the scene above being part of it — to realize that this story is an autobiography. It's a bildungsroman, if you will, showing a boy becoming himself and coming to terms with the world changing around him. There is the clash of traditional customs — such as working to build a large herd to support one's family or listening to traditional stories — with new ideals, like the rise of communism in the region. Where for generations people learned what they needed from their tribal elders, as Galsan learns from his beloved Grandma, some children are sent to a city to learn at a school run by the government. In these debates the adults in the story have, Kulak, a Russian word for “fist,” is used as an insult to herders in the region who are not proletariat, not going forward with progress. In other words, this change isn't a gentle one.
Galsan (or as he is known in Tuvan, Dshurukuwaa) clearly loves his land and his people. He questions the value of progress and change, even while being surrounded with it: why must Brother and Sister leave for school? Why not stay forever tending the herds with Grandma? By the end of the book, much has changed. Some people have died, some have left, and the boy (still not yet of age to go to school, but he will be soon) must make a choice: will he stay with his people, his customs, and his homeland? Or will he embrace modernity?
The book, as a part of Galsan's testimony, invites us to the same questions. For the places we know and love, what will we do to protect them? Even as technologies change our lifestyles, what will we pass on to our children? How will we use our words to shape the world?
In this vein, the book is a perfect next installment for Milkweed's Seedbank Series. Those who have loved and delighted in the other titles will be sure to find the majestic world of the Altai and its peoples a place worth remembering.
[^1]: This also reminded me of the Tibetan practice of “big sky mind.” [^2]: p. 95