Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Horse Like Mr. Ragman
Rachel Rivers-Coffey
1977, Scribner's (Scholastic)

My horse would be a deep bay with velvet black trim. People would get him mixed up with King. Or he'd be a bright star-faced sorrel, or maybe a dapper little gray with slate eyes and a soft, pinkish nose.

Elizabeth Mae "Chicken" Jiggsen spends every summer working at the seasonal riding school operated by Mrs. Nolly, and eating her heart out for her own horse to show at the big end-of-summer Highlands Horse Show. When she gets sick one year, her loving but inexperienced and working-class dad buys her a horse. Not the horse of her dreams, but a shaggy pinto almost small enough to be a pony. Elizabeth is horrified, and her resistance to the horse called Mr. Ragman continues right down to the big jumping class.

Only two strides away were the parallel rails. He planted his small hooves solidly in the soaked dirt and was moving slightly to the right when I guided him straight with the pressure of my knee. "Up, boy," I whispered along his neck, and the pinto tucked himself up neatly, flew in a gentle arc, and came down effortlessly.

An easy, natural style makes this a readable book, but the convoluted sentences and lack of detail or varying points of view give it a shallow feel. Elizabeth's frustration with the wealthy Eva and her longing for a big horse make her a sympathetic character, but her harsh dismissal of other people, including amiable fellow riders as well as the villains of the book, diminish her as a heroine. It could be explained as a realistic portrait of a young girl who hasn't learned much humility or kindness, but by the end of the book, she still doesn't seem to have changed much. Perhaps this is understandable, as her role model, Mrs. Nolly, is also petty and catty by turns.

"That's just it. There are two kinds of losing. There is losing when you deserve to, and losing when you don't deserve to. Mine is the second kind."

As the blacksmith Carver Coy notes, "She's always a good sport when she's winning."

Carver's the most appealing character in many ways, but even he stages a late comeback to be unappealing, bringing a horde of shelter dogs to run loose at the big horse show. To be adopted, of course, which is nice, but you can't help side with the vicious Garson Gambill when he protests that the dogs are a menace.

A very sour note comes at the end, when Gambill, who competes with Tennessee Walking Horses and drugs them to win, is finally punished. Fighting his suspension from showing, he cries out that he doesn't want to go back to hanging wallpaper for a living and threatens to sue; the horse show judge who suspended him doesn't just remind him it's his own fault, he pulls the class card to put the wallpaper hanger in his place, tranquilly remarking that he's quite wealthy and would be quite pleased if Gambrill sued him.

Mr. Ragman - pinto gelding
William Tell (aka Garrison's Quarter) - bay Thoroughbred gelding
Major - aging Thoroughbred
Benny - Tennessee Walking Horse
Stogy - sorrel filly
Daisy - mule

North Carolina, the mountain resort of Blowing Rock.

About the Author
Rachel Rivers-Coffey inherited a newspaper, the Watauga Democrat, in 1975. When she sold out in 1994, the paper had been in the Rivers family for 100 years. She died in 1999, at age 56, of injuries from a riding accident.

Horse Show
Why did my father buy me a horse?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Katharine Newlin Burt, il. Vic Donahue
1965, Funk & Wagnalls Company, Inc.

In a flash, Stormy was in Trinket's saddle and had her out in the middle of the field. Watching, they saw him touch her lightly with his heel high up close to her cinch. With that, she leapt forward, seemed to "swallow" her neck, and started to buck. Stormy gave a shout, stretched out a balancing arm, and rode the rough, stiff-legged, hump-backed horse halfway to the edge of the pine wood, his hair flapping with the motion but his head held steady on his own neck.

On the Two-Bar Ranch, three kids tangle over one buckskin colt. Stormy Mapes, son of an aloof and mysterious local horse trader, had the horse first and named him Smarty. When his dad included him in a sale to ranch owner Alfred Keene, the ranch's head wrangler passed him along to his daughter Jenny, who renames the colt Taffy. And when Keene's son Roger, a talented but hard-natured Easterner, needs a new mount, he naturally takes over Smarty/Taffy's training.

A standard Western adventure story with a somewhat buried romantic angle in that the girl is aware of chosing between the two boys in a way that's never really explicit. The girl, of course, makes most of the concessions, and her big heroic moments are ones of sacrifice and nursing, while the boys get to race and compete directly. The characters are predictable but strong - Stormy's sudden temper, Roger's panic, Mr. Mapes the 'outsider,' etc. Engrossing action scenes and natural, impressive setting.

Tarbaby - black horse
Smarty/Taffy - buckskin colt
Trinket - bay mare

Shag - sheepdog

Author Information
Burt was a Wyoming author who lived in Jackson Hole and on the Bar BC Ranch. She was the wife of writer Maxwell Struthers Burt, and the mother of writer Nathaniel Burt. She also used the pen name Rebecca Scarlett, and it appears that most of the following books are romance/thrillers, best-selling popular fiction.

Other Books
Lost Isobel
One Silver Spur
Girl on a Broomstick
Escape from Paradise
Strong Citadel
Still Water
Close Pursuit
Lady in the Tower
Captain Millett's Island
Fatal Gift
No Surrender
If Love I Must
Men of Moon Mountain
Safe Road
When Beggars Choose
Rapture Beyond
Monkey's Tail
This Woman and This Man
Beggars All
The Tall Ladder
A Man's Own Country
Cock's Feather
The Grey Parrot
Quest: A novel
Snow-blind (available on Project Gutenberg )
Hidden Creek (available on Project Gutenberg)
The Red Lady
The Branding Iron (available on Project Gutenberg)
Penelope Intrudes

Several early films were based on her writing
The Silent Rider (1928)
The Way of a Girl (1925)
The Eagle's Feather (1923)
The Leopardess (1923)
Singed Wings (1922)
The Man from Lost River (1921)
Snowblind (1921)
The Branding Iron (1920)

Friday, February 20, 2009

Horse Show Fever
Elizabeth Harrover Johnson, il. Charles W. Walker
1962, Ives Washburn Inc.

Six months after his mother's death and his father's withdrawal into work, young Hugh has had enough. Sent off to camp for the summer, he promptly runs away and finds himself working on a horse farm near Princeton, N.J. Initially amused by the students who take lessons with gruff old Colonel Watson, he soon succumbs to the charm of both horses and showing.

This isn't the most dynamic or literate horse book, but it is interesting. The mentor figure, Colonel Watson, seems British in the whole Colonel thing, and is unusually complicated - kind to Hugh, who he takes in off the road and secretly helps a lot, and brusque to a student who's too nervous of him to learn anything. Of course, this last makes him a lot less likeable.

There is some practical information on stable management and riding. The illustrations are adequate.

Ginny - chestnut mare
Riley - black gelding
Rum Tum - bay mare

Princeton, NJ

Horse Show
Missing Daddy
My Parents Aren't So Bad, After All
I'm a TROUBLED teen (but not like, you know, on heroin)

Other Books
Christy Finds A Rider (1965) il. Sam Savitt
The Old Quarry Fox Hunt (1964)
The Pony That Didn't Grow (1963)
Almost Cousins (1961)
The Mysterious Trunk (1960)
The Several Secrets Of Will Monroe

About the Author
Johnson was born in Virginia but spent much of her life in Princeton, New Jersey. She died in 2007.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Martin Rides The Moor
Vian Smith, il. Ray Houlihan
1964, Doubleday

11-year-old Martin Manningham has gone deaf, possibly as a result of a swimming accident. His father, a Dartmoor farmer, tries to restore his resentful and withdrawn son to an active and happy boy by buying him a pony. Martin sees through the ploy and intends to ignore the pony - but circumstances in the form of a blizzard force him to take an interest and soon he's in love with the little mare he names Tuppence. The interest in Tuppence brings Martin out of his shell and he befriends a neighbor, Jane, whose father is a pony dealer and whose mounts are never really safe from being sold. Together they ride the moor, go on a fox hunt, enter gymkhanas, etc. All is well until Tuppence goes missing, following a wild stallion onto the moor.

Well-written, with a nice blend of adventures, horse talk and the advancing plot of Martin's acceptance of his disability.

Rough illustrations are sometimes effective, sometimes weak.

My Parents Aren't So Bad, After All

Other Books
Tall And Proud (aka King Sam)
Green Heart
Genesis Down
Pride Of The Moor
Minstrel Boy
Come Down The Mountain
The Horses Of Petrock
The Lord Mayor's Boy
Parade Of Horses
Point To Point

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Chancey of the Maury River
Gigi Amateau, il
. Tim O'Brien (cover)
2008, Candlewick Press

An aged schoolhorse named Chancey recalls his early life, the circumstances that led to his semi-abandonment, and his second chance at greatness as the beloved horse of a little girl.

Bred to be a snowflake Appaloosa, Chancey turned out to be a nearly albino foal. His disgusted breeder never forgave him the disappointment, especially when his beautiful dam died in a freak accident soon after his birth. But Monique kept the oddly pale horse, using him as a school horse to teach children to ride.

My prior career as a school horse had been long and diversified. In my youth, I introduced dozens of girls to the artistry of dressage. I carried many a young man through the mechanics of learning to jump....for twenty or so faithful years, I had schooled without complaint, nearly every day and often for many hours

But when Monique falls on hard times and has to sell her horses, no former student steps forward to buy the aging gelding. Chancey recognizes the reasons he was never a favorite; his odd, semi-albino appearance, the rejection of his owner, and his own grumpy demeanor.

In all my days at Monique's as a school horse, I was a reliable worker but had a reputation as being difficult, even mean.

He tries to push away Claire, the stuttering little girl who, suffering from her parents' divorce, forms a bond with the bony old gelding who's brought to live at the Maury River Stables. But she won't have it. She showers him with affection and attention, and for the first time since his dam's untimely death twenty years earlier, Chancey is tempted to develop affection for another living being.

Together, horse and girl do manage to achieve greatness.

Well-written, with many homages to the classic children's stories; the Black Beauty-like style, the horse-becoming-great theme of National Velvet, the 'love makes us real' ethic of books from The Velveteen Rabbit to The Little Prince to Pinnochio.

I suppose, if you have never before been any girl's or boy's favorite horse, no heart longs for you.

The ruminative style is nice, but possibly too old for children to readily accept. The esoteric horsey-language (hunter shows, gelded, etc.), and the fanciful adventures (the horse deliberately leading a person to a clue) are also at odds.

Horse Themes
Horse Show

The Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains

Chancey - white Appaloosa gelding
Starry Night/Dam - black snowflake Appaloosa mare
Gwen - blood bay Hanoverian mare
Daisy - Welsh cob mare
Princess - Arab mare
Dante - black Thoroughbred gelding
Macadoo - blond sorrel Belgian gelding

About the Author
Author Website

Other Books by the Author
Claiming Georgia Tate
A Certain Strain Of Peculiar

Friday, February 13, 2009

Wild Pony Island
Stephen Meader, il. Charles Beck
1959, Harcourt Brace

14-year-old Rick Landon is a sullen, fatherless kid growing up in an impoverished Brooklyn neighborhood. When he gets into a gang, his mother decides to move the little family south to her home town, the North Carolina island of Ocracoke. There Rick is transformed from listless punk to clean-cut boy by the influences of small town life, the country's only equine Boy Scout troop and a stern male relative. And, of course, his love for the palomino stallion called Dandelion.

The writing is disappointing. The indirect voice and awkward sentence construction saps interesting and eventful scenes of most of their life:

Rick hung on. One spine-jarring jolt followed another, but he managed to land back in the saddle each time. Then the young horse sunfished, twisting in the air till his rider was dizzy. Both feet had lost the stirrups now, and Rick knew his luck was about to run out.

Rick's desire to be a cowboy is fulfilled on Ocracoke, where apparently only boys ride the wild ponies. His mother, raised on the island, meets Dandelion one day; her lordly young son tells her to feed the horse an apple, and "She held the fruit out timidly." The breaking methods come across as brutal and ridiculous today - did the kid really have to climb on a young horse the very first time he'd ever been in a corral? The villain of the piece, Windy Jenkins, is the only unfriendly kid on the island and he's quickly dispatched.

Very nearly not a horse book at all. Most of the ponies aren't given names, and are treated much like taxis - if you want to ride, you go look for a herd and grab a pony; when you're done riding you just slap them on the flank and off they go back to the herd. The ponies wander everywhere through the village and feed themselves, are released after every ride to go run wild again. I have my doubts about how they release the stallion Dandelion after both his breaking and his triumph as herd stallion - surely it would be hard to recapture him to ride? Rick is portrayed as being fond of and considerate of his pony, sheltering him from a hurricane (oddly, though, he rides around looking for Dandelion and once he finds him, abandons the pony he was initially riding to the weather without a second thought) and the like. But the horse sections are flat and unconvincing.

Charles Beck's illustrations, warm and simple and realistic, are the best part of the book.

Sweet Sue - chestnut mare, roping horse in NYC rodeo
Satan's Child - blue roan bronco in NYC rodeo
Old Horny - brown bronco at NYC rodeo
Dandelion - palomino stallion

Horse Show
Missing Daddy
I'm a TROUBLED teen (but not like, you know, on heroin)
Born Free! Free as the wind blows....

Other books by Author
Red Horse Hill
Cedar's Boy

About the Author
Meader was born in 1892 and died in 1977. He had strong ties in the Philadelphia area, graduating from Haverford College and working at Philly companies Curtis Publishing Company, Holmes Press, and ad agency N.W. Ayer and Son. Several of his fifty-plus books for children were set in southern New Jersey, where he eventually settled down in first Moorestown and then Cape May Courthouse, and in the Pocono Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania.

Source: The Stephen Meader Collection at the de Grummond Children's Literature Collection at The University of Southern Mississippi, and the bio section on the Southern Skies website.

As of 2006, Meader's books were being reissued under the name Southern Skies

Friday, February 6, 2009

Lynn Hall
1981, Charles Scribner's Sons

Paulo Camacho is a young boy whose grandfather Diego raises Paso Fino horses on a farm in Puerto Rico. Though mares are seen as unfit mounts for men, Paulo adores the broodmare Twenty over any of the restless stallions until she gives birth to a beautiful bay foal. The colt Danza becomes the love of Paulo's life. His growing confidence smoothes out family discord, and Paulo slowly grows closer to his hard grandfather until the day the young stallion founders.

Here I must say that the description of founder's effects rank right up there in the crowded halls of stomach-churning animal torture in fiction.

Protruding from the bottom of the leg was a stump of tissue oozing blood and encasing the denuded inner bones of Danza's foot.

You have to have a strong stomach to read much horse and dog lit, but I distinctly recall being unable to finish this particular book for a long time as a kid.

Around this time, the horse-loving American colonel that's been hanging around trying to buy a stallion off Diego - who will sell mares but refuses to sell a stallion to an American because he's bitter that his sons all abandoned Puerto Rico for America's promise - turns up and makes a bargain with Diego. He'll take the horse back to his Louisiana farm and try to save him; if he succeeds, he'll keep him for a breeding season as a leasee, and then send him home. Diego agrees, even though he's unhappy that Paulo goes along.

In America, Paulo thrives under the warm praise of the colonel, so unlike his grandfather's silent refusal to encourage, and Danza struggles back to health. Problems arise as time passes and no mention is made of Danza's return to Puerto Rico - and when an abusive trainer is brought in to produce ribbons for Danza and the colonel.

Similar to most of Hall's books, but somehow less memorable. The differences are many - semi-tropical Puerto Rico and Louisiana instead of the Midwest, a boy hero instead of a girl - but many of the elements are the same as previous books. A passionate love of a child for an animal, the animal's growth and training, the child's disillusionment and acceptance of human complexity. Unusually for Hall's books, however, her hero never reaches the same kind of acceptance of his tarnished friend the colonel that her female heroes regularly reach about disappointing mentors and friends. There is more of the sense of right and wrong here than in most Hall books, which is odd considering that the colonel, for all his weakness and shadiness, does a spectacular good deed when he rescues Danza from the lingering death Diego has left him to suffer.

Horse Show
Missing Daddy - a father is MIA
My Parents Aren't So Bad, After All
Sibling Jealousy

Other Books by Author (horse)
Flying Changes
The Mystery Of Pony Hollow (aka The Ghost Pony)
The Mystery Of The Phantom Pony (aka The Mystery of Plum Park Pony)
Tin Can Tucker
Ride A Dark Horse
A Horse Called Dragon (aka Wild Mustang)
New Day For Dragon
Dragon's Delight
Dragon Defiant
The Something-Special Horse
Megan's Mare (aka The Problem Pony)
Ride A Wild Dream
The Boy In The Off-White Hat
The Horse Trader
Fair Maiden
The Whispered Horse
Mrs. Portree's Pony
Captain: Canada's Flying Pony (comic)
Tazo And Me (nonfiction)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A Horse Called September
Anne Digby
Dobson Books Ltd. (UK)
St. Martin's (US, 1982)

When Anna Dewar is sent away to an exclusive boarding school, her best friend Mary Wilkins believes nothing will change between them. She takes care of Anna's talented horse September, awaiting the end of the school term and their summer vacation. But Anna's father is acting strangely, training September for a big horse show and losing his temper when the horse doesn't perform perfectly. In short order, September's lost his bright interest in jumping and Mr. Dewar is looking for a new horse for his daughter.

After many years of reading Brit books, I can just about decipher the scenario here, with the prosperous farmer being seen as a minor-league lord of the manor, his employees living in cottages for generations, and the idea that a career as a show jumper makes sense to two hard-headed farm workers. If I hadn't put in hard time with too many books good and bad to mention, I'd be at a loss for some of the storyline. But most of it isn't neccessary - it boils down to "Poor girl loses rich best friend to snobbery and helps a discarded horse make good." Frankly, the bit about the horse is all that's important. And September has a truly glorious comeback, despite the author's rush to get it over with. Some of it seems less than informed about horses - September is almost too human to be real. And the riding is rather hurried over, as if the author wasn't that comfortable with it. Her best moment comes not with a riding scene but with a truly horrifying rescue, the knacker leading September away while our heroine screams from behind a locked gate.

It's a brisk book, without a spare bit of writing. The horse is central though not onstage at all times, giving plenty of room for well-rounded human characters. But the horse drives the action, the heroine being consumed by her love for the horse. There is not much description, but what there is is striking, particularly the enormous obstacle Mr. Dewars builds to school September over. The language is plain, the dialogue believable.

Horse Show
Bourgie Parents
My Parents Aren't So Bad, After All
I'm a TROUBLED teen (but not like, you know, on heroin)
Where's that footman?

Other Books by the Author
Digby seems to be best-known for her boarding-school series called Trebizon, but she did writer at least one other horse book, The Quicksilver Horse.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Colt Named Mischief
Sandy Rabinowitz, also illustrator
1979, Weekly Reader

Sara's frisky colt Mischief drives her father, a farmer, crazy with his shenanigans - chasing dogs, knocking over milk pails, harassing the other animals and just generally causing trouble. When the last straw comes, her dad decrees he must be sold. But fate intervenes.

A picture book with cheerful, soft-edged 1970's illustrations. The colt's personality is evident in the clever drawings, though the heroine's short-shorts look a bit extreme by today's standards.

Mischief - chestnut (based on illustrations) colt