Sunday, January 18, 2009

There Was A Horse
Sam Savitt, author and illustrator
1961, The Dial Press

The last rays of the late March sun slanted across the barnyard, spotlighting the horses bunched together in the paddock. Suddenly the gray's head came up, turning toward my departing truck. There was a bold, defiant look about him, and for one brief instant the sight of the gray horse against the red barn in the brilliant sunlight dazzled my eyes and grabbed my foot, pushing it down hard on the brake.

Bill buys the skinny gray horse intending to remake him as a hunter and sell for a profit to help his older brother, a dairy farmer. His own future is uncertain; about to graduate high school, a self-taught horse nut who doesn't know what he's going to do with his life. The big gray, though, resists the re-training plan, going completely out of control in the field. He's too wild for hunting and too fast for the show ring, and Bill's about to pack it in when Drake, a new hired man, recognizes the big Thoroughbred. Steelman was a steeplechaser who overturned and nearly wrecked himself in the Maryland Hunt Cup a few years ago. Drake agrees to undertake training Bill and Steelman to compete in this year's Cup. While Steelman's almost ready, Bill's seat-of-his-pants riding style and youthful resilience are clearly not going to be enough to get them through one of the world's most grueling races.

Sam Savitt wrote few books compared to the ones he illustrated, but those few were lovely horsey books. He never seemed at home with female characters, so the near total lack of them in this book is a strength, in a sense, though of course in another sense it's pathetic. The male characters are solid. Bill is one-note as an obsessed teenaged boy can be, and as the narration comes from him, it's almost all about the horse. Elder brother Chris and mentor Drake appear as important figures which the narrator barely understands till the end of the book. The action is realistic and yet heroic; most believable and painful is the loss of nerve Bill experiences after a bad fall:

Over the past three years the gray horse had given me a pretty rough time - no doubt about that. I had hit the ground, bounced back and hit the ground again, and aside from bruised bones and charlie-horsed muscles, never gave it a second thought. But with each successive jolt a little more heart was knocked out and always a little less returned.

And who but Sam Savitt would lovingly include a drawing of the race course? I've never watched the Cup, but I aspire to drive down there some day.

There Was A Horse - Steelman was owned by a Mr. Whitcomb in the past; Phantom, Son Of the Gray Ghost - a Mr. Whitcomb is refered to as the former employer of a Joe Tanner, former head of Whitcomb's stables.


Other Books by Author
Vicki And The Black Horse
Vicki And The Brown Mare
Midnight, Champion Bucking Horse
Wild Horse Running

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