“Rough Magic” is an Upbeat Ride Across the Mongolian Steppe

When Lara Prior-Palmer won the Mongol Derby, her prize was a can of beer. Three people applauded. It was a fitting end to an event often called “the world’s loneliest horse race.” 

Based on Mongolia’s historic postal system, the Mongol Derby is held each summer, attracting international competitors who come to try their seat and their endurance against the spirit of Mongolia’s ponies and the monotony of the steppe. 

At 19, Prior-Palmer was the youngest person to finish the Derby and the first woman ever to win. Her first book, Rough Magic, captures her thousand-kilometer race across the Mongolian steppe, describing the 25 ponies she rode and the many places her thoughts wandered.

Prior-Palmer signed up for the race just seven weeks before the start date; other competitors have reportedly trained as endurance riders for months or even years. She had never used a GPS or ridden endurance. Before the race began, she tossed all her pain meds into a single plastic bag, from which she swallowed at random.

Throughout Rough Magic, Prior-Palmer expresses dislike for all seriousness, and self-seriousness, especially. On the second day of training, stranded alone on a high ridge, she confesses that she prefers to travel “catastrophically.” But beneath this devil-may-care attitude, she is ambitious.

Three days from the race’s finish, Prior-Palmer decides to press forward on her own instead of waiting for a group of companions. At that moment, she says, “I knew the race had me.” This realization may surprise her, but it doesn’t surprise the reader. “I am extremely competitive,” she wrote in her application for the race, “and want to become the youngest person to finish.” She’s always been there to compete.

Prior-Palmer’s recognition of her competitive drive serves as the book’s turn—centering the narrative on questions of ambition, bravery and the ways we deceive ourselves. She never pretends to understand her impulses and motivations. She’s unsure why she entered the race.

She asks: “Why the need to go all that way and do such a thing?” She also offers possible answers. “I believe we sought some kind of oblivion,” she says once. Later on, she suggests that “the race reclaims me as an animal, my original form, my rawest self, my favorite way to be.”

These reflections feel grand, if not entirely candid, and Prior-Palmer isn’t satisfied with them. Could it be the attraction of extremity, of this “longest” and “toughest” horse race? She asks herself, but she doesn’t know. “I’ve conveniently erased from memory,” she declares, “whether that appealed to me.”

This lack of personal insight keeps the reader at a distance, but it’s offset by Prior-Palmer’s forthcoming, perceptive and humorous race commentary. It touches on the attire of her co-competitors, her family’s varied reactions to the race, her passing crushes on race personnel, the hospitality of Mongolian families she meets and the ways she passes the time as she rides—thinking of home, hamsters, bunions, toilets, philosophy, seals and nettle rashes. It’s a vibrant, entertaining mix.

I often hear it said that happiness cannot be sustained in literature, as if it’s inherently dull or unrealistic—but Prior-Palmer’s account of her race across the Mongolian steppe is consistently joyful. It reminds us that joy can encompass chronic stomach pain, jammed thumbs, soaked jodhpurs, lost maps, angry boys throwing stones and the brutal tedium of 1000 kilometers on horseback. This is a buoyed book, but not a naïve one. Glee is her “favorite train to catch,” and the narrative catches it again and again. One finishes impressed by the author’s grit and humor.

Talking about culture, Prior-Palmer admits, “makes me feel a bit ill,” which could explain why Monogolian culture and history is not central to her memoir. After spending just weeks in a foreign country where she doesn’t speak the language, she recognizes that she’s unable to describe the culture and landscape with the nuance it deserves, and she chooses to describe it little.

That’s a responsible choice, perhaps—but one that results in lack of access to the people of the land through which she rides, a people who are also absent from the Derby’s narrative and advertising. I’ve spent enough time in Mongolia to provide my own mental images of the gers in which Prior-Palmer was generously hosted for several nights of her ride and the vast, arid grassland across which she rides. I wonder if a less familiar reader would be able to supple their own images. This memoir is set in Mongolia, but it is not about Mongolia. 

Because of this absence of place and reflective interiority, I bounced along on Prior-Palmer’s ride through the Mongolian steppe without truly entering her experience of it. But it’s a ride worth experiencing, even at a slight distance. Her gleeful words alone are worth the ride.

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About

Morgan Thomas received her MFA from the University of Oregon and was the recipient of a 2016-2017 Fulbright grant to Mongolia.