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?

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