Another fairy tale retelling from Cameron Dokey! This one is Wild Orchid, based on the ballad of Mulan. (Yes, we could get into a discussion about whether this truly qualifies as a fairy tale. Let’s not—I’ll happily have that conversation with you over coffee someday.)
In this version, Mulan has mostly grown up without her parents—her mother died in childbirth and her heartbroken father stayed away at war and serving the Emperor. Her best friend is a boy named Li Po—he teaches her almost everything she knows. She’s exceptional with a bow.
Mulan dresses as a boy and joins the army. In this version, Li Po goes with her and the general also knows—this makes a lot more sense and helps her hide the fact that she’s a girl.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Love and Marriage
These two things have nothing to do with each other. Mulan’s parents had to ask the Emperor for permission to marry for love. The Emperor can say who should get married and who should not—it’s just another order to be followed. Eventually, Mulan’s father does remarry and it also seems to be for love. This is an exception.
Li Po and Mulan talk about getting married, but it’s very platonic. It would be convenient if they married each other because they get along well. Li Po’s family doesn’t think this is a very good idea because Mulan doesn’t behave as she should.
Mulan falls in love with Prince Jian—her commander and friend, but of course she’s hiding a huge secret from him. She as to figure out how to balance what she wants with who she is and what’s most important to her.
In the end, love triumphs over everything, but there’s an aspect of sacrifice and compromise to it. Caring about each other means taking into account what the other person wants, even when it’s not how you want things to go.
Of course girls are very limited—boys carry on the name and take care of their parents, while girls are just gifts to give to the sons of other families. However, boys are equally constrained and must follow the wishes of their families.
Mulan uses her skill at embroidery to sew up a gash in her father’s leg—he’s very proud of her which makes her very happy.
Overall, the story is at its heart about being true to yourself and rebelling against the roles that are foisted on you whether due to your gender or your birth or whatever.
Mulan’s father has been very hands-off. He does come to appreciate his headstrong daughter, though. Her nanny, who raised her, anticipates that Mulan will run off to join the army and comes to help her escape. Mulan’s beautiful step-mother could easily have been a source of contention, but they become good friends—this ensures that Mulan never has to get married.
Li Po’s family is not nearly so supportive. This shows how even though he’s a boy, he can’t easily make decisions for himself without rebelling against his family.
War, Injury, and Death
Of course there’s war, since that’s why Mulan runs away. Li Po ends up dying a hero’s death, and I felt he should have been mourned more in the story. Yes, it’s a love story in many ways and Li Po isn’t the love interest, but he was such a good friend that I would have liked to have seen more grief over his death.
Mulan kills Li Po’s killer, who is also the leader of the Huns. In doing so, she saves China and is gravely injured in a landslide. Everything turns out well for her, though.
I love fairy tale retellings and I love Cameron Dokey’s retellings in particular, so of course I recommend this. It’s an interesting departure from the usual core princess tales and I enjoyed the elaboration on the story that I’m only moderately familiar with (mostly through the Disney movie). Like most of Dokey’s novels, there are reflections on serious issues through the story without it getting preachy. It’s suitable for probably ages 10 and up.