Don't let this unpretentious little novel fool you; it's a well written, fascinating recounting of the Chinese legend of Mulan by well known author, Cameron Dokey. Like many of her other books in the Simon Pulse "Once Upon A Time" series, Dokey's poetic prose is well suited to the telling of such wonderful legends and fairytales as Mulan and Scheherazade.
Born in the year of the monkey, Mulan lives on her father's estate in rural China. Mulan did not know her father, Hua Wei, while growing up because he was a great soldier who lived at court with the Emperor. She knew he was very courageous but did not know personally what her father looked like or who he really was. Her father had been fighting against the Huns, a fierce tribe determined to over run northern China. The Chinese emperor, known as Son of Heaven, saw his beloved son, Prince Jian, captured by the Huns and Hua Wei had rescued him. Son of Heaven granted Hua Wei permission to marry for love. He did so but while away with the emperor, his wife gave birth to Mulan and died. Hua Wei's grief was so great that he has not returned home in thirteen years. He also forbade anyone to speak the name of his beloved wife, so that Mulan does not know her mother's name.
In the years Hua Wei is absent, Mulan grows into an intelligent, courageous young girl who wants to learn more than just what women where normally taught; she wants to learn how to read and write. When she is seven years old, Mulan meets Li Po who shows her how to write and read, teaches her how to use a sword and most importantly to excel at archery. Everything Li Po learns from his tutor he passes on to Mulan, including how to become disciplined. Mulan also learns everything that she needs to at home, how to cook, sew and do embroidery, although she greatly hates the latter. Li Po and Mulan become close friends, promising to remain so for life.
One day, Mulan's father returns home unexpectedly. The Huns have been defeated for the time being, although Hua Wei has told the Emperor that the son of the dead leader will return to avenge his father's death. Hua Wei has been seriously injured and because of his views about another impending Hun attack, has been ordered home by the Emperor. He arrives home with a friend, General Yuwen Huaji.
At first, Mulan's relationship with her father is not good. Mulan has felt all these years, that if she were a boy, her father would have returned home sooner and more often. She feels he is not proud of her and does not love her. His seeming indifference to her when he arrives home, wounds her deeply.
However, as time passes, it becomes evident that Mulan's father, Hua Wei not only has a serious leg wound but also has still not come to terms with his grief over the loss of his wife many years ago. When Mulan repairs her father's leg wound, he thanks her and their relationship begins to develop from that point on. Mulan's father comes to realize that his daughter is very special and takes over teaching her once General Yuwen leaves, taking Li Po with him.
Mulan's father eventually remarries and his new wife is expecting a baby. As he predicted, the Hun's are raising an army to attack China leading the Emperor to send notice that every family must send a man to fight. This means that Mulan's father will have to serve as a foot soldier and will likely not survive the battle. Mulan makes the decision to disguise herself and go in her father's place.
When Mulan arrives at the valley where the battle is expected to take place using the name Hua Gongshi, she is taken to serve with Prince Jian, the Emperor's youngest son. Prince Jian does not know Hua Gonshi is a girl but is impressed with his skill with the bow and arrow. Mulan/Hua Gonshi volunteers for a critical mission that will determine the outcome of the battle.
Unexpectedly, Mulan finds herself falling in love with Prince Jian who is so much like herself. Facing the Huns in battle will take all her courage, but will Mulan have the courage to tell Prince Jian her true identity and her feelings for him?
Told simply in Cameron Dokey's beautifully expressive style, Wild Orchid, is beautifully written, capturing the very essence of this legend through the well drawn voice of Hua Mulan. We easily identify with Mulan's struggle to measure up in her father's eyes, experiencing her hurt at being abandoned and ignored. Readers will especially identify with Mulan who attempts to forge her own path outside of her culture's expectations for women. Women were expected to dress and behave a certain way, to marry by the age of fifteen. But Mulan wants none of this, instead recognizing where her talents are and attempting to remain true to herself.
Dokey draws each of the central characters equally well through the use of dialogue and action. Hua Wei is a crusty, battle-hardened warrior who is a romantic at heart. Li Po is Mulan's best friend, who remains supportive and helps Mulan develop her talents. Prince Jian is portrayed as a warrior with integrity and courage, who must forgive Mulan for the breach of trust between them.
Wild Orchid combines a great storytelling with interesting characters to make this one of the best novels of the Once Upon A Time series.
Wild Orchid by Cameron Dokey
New York: Simon Pulse 2009