Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Smoke Rings
Dorothy Lyons, il. Wesley Dennis (cover and frontispiece)
1960, Harcourt, Brace And Company

Never had Ginny had to ask him for more speed; rather it had been a matter of steadying him. Now, racing against the clock, she let him go, only taking him in at the last jump. As the fourth flashed beneath them, she reined him in to make a sharp left around the arena's end, another left - and his hindfoot slipped where churning hoofs had dug through the protective tanbark to the subsurface, slippery from frequent waterings.

Virginia 'Ginny' Atkins, owner of Java Jive, impulsively buys a huge grey Thoroughbred from an overfaced owner and finds herself training for the Olympics.

When Ginny buys Smoke Rings from his furious owner, she immediately suspects that this hugely talented horse could be her ticket to the U.S. Equestrian Team. For the next few years, that's all she works toward. And even a heartbreaking defeat - denied a place due to the Three-Day team's bias against female riders - only spurs her to greater efforts.

The entire series of Ginny books must be read with a firm suspension of disbelief. Even by horse book standards, she's preternaturally lucky. Her neighbor just happens to be a former Olympic rider who coaches her for free, she falls into owning an Olympic-calibre jumper, all her friends support her ambitions with words and deeds and her parents go along with her plans with only a token resistance. Yes, this is catnip. Ginny owns multiple horses, taps her dad for cash he's always able (if not always immediately willing) to give, and goes to the OLYMPICS. How not to love? And Smoke Rings is the perfect horse - initially described as a great hunter, he's trained successfully for cross-country, then switches to be a grand prix jumper. A few more chapters and she'd have had him steeplechasing.

On a positive note? That is a positive note. All horse fiction is crazy wish-fulfillment fiction. Lyons' writing may be more pedestrian than classics like The Black Stallion and National Velvet, but it still works that nerve with style. A satisfying book about a girl rising to the pinnacle of equestrian accomplishment.

Social Issues
Old horse books are so often sexist and classist, but I've avoided commenting on it most of the time because I don't feel that it's always part of the review. But here, there are a couple of things that jump out at me. The misogyny of the eventing team's no-women policy is particularly ugly as it's mentioned that the dressage team is, even then, all female, and women are allowed on the Grand Prix (show jumping) team. And by today's standards, with Olympic equestrian teams frequently being all female, it's even more ridiculous. Ginny doesn't really fight, just changes her goal, which is realistic, true to her character and keeps the focus on horses, but is in some ways disappointing.

On a more horsey note, there is a point late in the book where Smoke Rings nearly goes down at the end of a course, and Ginny leaps off in automatic fear for her horse.

With no thought of anything but Smoke Rings, she vaulted from the saddle. In mid-air, she twisted in a convulsive effort to regain her seat, remembering too late that elimination was the penalty for dismounting without permission. Her beautiful round would not be counted toward the team's score, but, worse than that it left the United States with but three riders and no insurance against the unpredictable. Ginny was so crushed that she wished she could just evaporate into thin air and not have to face the coach, but squaring her shoulders she led her horse around the screen.

This regret comes before she really knows that Smoke Rings is okay. It's an interesting scene, given the controversy that's erupted in recent years over equine breakdowns and when or whether a rider has pulled up in competition. One of the most discussed breakdowns was the death of Le Samurai at the 2007 Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event. The horse, ridden by Amy Tryon, was approaching the final fence on the course when the horse's stride changed. Tryon later said she felt it, but thought it was just minor. She continued riding to the fence, over, finished the course, and only then pulled up and dismounted. She faced almost instant criticism, as the horse's 'bobble' had been so visible at this very high-profile competition, and various video of it filled the internet's horsey circles. In that devastating way horses have, Le Samurai had become badly injured from one step to the next, and he was euthanized when it was determined his chances of survival were slim. There was an outcry against Tryon for not pulling up before the final fence. The FEI (Federation Equestre Internationale) ruled that her not pulling up before the final fence constituted abuse, and suspended and fined her. A different situation from the fictional Smoke Rings nearly falling after the last fence (I think there would have been less anger in the Tryon case if the bobble had come after the fence, and Tryon had only pushed him a bit further on the flat, as landing after a jump is very stressful on a horse's legs), but the same basic issue, which in Lyons book seems to place the team's success ahead of the individual health of a horse.

Smoke Rings - 17h dappled iron grey Thoroughbred gelding
Java Jive
Sugarfoot - Java's dam
Gray Friar


Other books by Author
Silver Birch (1939)
Midnight Moon (1941)
Golden Sovereign (1946)
Red Embers (1948)
Harlequin Hullabaloo/Bluegrass Champion (1949)
Copper Khan (1950)
Dark Sunshine (1951)
Blue Smoke (1953)
Java Jive (1955)
Bright Wampum (1958)
Pedigree Unknown (1973)

Other Information about the Author
was originally from Michigan, but lived most of her life in California. Her first two books revolved around friends in a mounted Girl Scout troop in Michigan, then the action moved West. She bred Connemaras. Lyons also wrote an autobiographical work, The Devil Made The Small Town (1983). Wesley Dennis illustrated nearly all her horse books.

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