Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Secret Horse
Marion Holland, Taylor Oughton, il.
1959, Little, Brown & Company

The summer stretches out long and boring for Maryland girl Annick (Nickie) Baxter. A sudden financial crisis involving replacing the front porch means she can't go to riding camp with her friends, and she's sulking up a storm until the arrival of a new neighbor, Abigail (Gail) Walton cheers her up. The horse-crazy Nickie talks Gail into stealing an unwanted horse from the local pound, and hiding it in the abandoned stables of a seldom-occupied estate nearby.

Nickie's single-minded efforts to get what she wants are awe-inspiring, and her gamble is so high that every scene has the potential for disaster, from the midnight creep with a stolen horse to the breathless moments waiting for the annual influx of handymen and lawnmowers to leave. There are sufficient obstacles, convenient happenstances (like the gorgeous stableblock just out the back door and through the fence), appealing heroines and a very pleasant horse named Highboy, who is just skinny and neglected enough to provide a bit of rescue story as well. With all that said, it is mostly an adventure story revolving around a horse. The girls scarcely ride Highboy, and it can't be said to be a pony book in that sense. It is satisfying and well written. A few bits of dialogue seem impossible for a pair of 10-year-olds, though.

The book's set in Maryland, outside Washington D.C., and both fathers appear to work in the government. The owner of the big estate, Mr. Olds, has turned sour after the death of his wife and daughter. A rather expositionary conversation between Nickie's parents seems both out of place and irritating, hinging as it does on the assumption that the reader desperately needs to know the old man's motivations for returning. It also indulges an ill-judged foray into mild author pretension, as the utterly conventional, middle-class, stay-at-home mom makes a casual classical reference that simply does not belong in the story.

Also, in the annals of children's books, has there ever been a financial crisis as bizarre and dull as termites eating the front porch?

Maryland, suburban D.C.

I love the cover on the Scholastic edition. Taylor Oughton's drawings throughout are good, rather basic and better with people than horses, but satisfying.

Editions pictured:
1) Dark cover, horse with house in background

2) Horse in woods, paler frame (pictured below)
APPLE Paperback - Scholastic - interior same, different cover

Practical Information
Not a lot. That you can make hay by spreading cut grass on a flat surface to dry in the sun, mostly.

Butterscotch - owned by Gail's family previously
Tennessee Girl - owned by Gail's family previously
Chocolate Chip - owned by Gail's family previously

Other Books by Holland
No Children, No Pets
Casey Jones Rides Vanity
Everygirl's Horse Stories (anthology)
No Room For A Dog

Holland also wrote several books for beginner readers

Bourgie Parents
Where's that footman?
Bulldozers on the Prowl

Other Editions
Apple Paperback (show below)

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