Friday, April 10, 2009

The Colonel And Me

The Colonel And Me
John W. Chambers
1985, Atheneum some miracle my left foot sank home in the dangling stirrup at just that instant. I held onto the pommel, attempting to get my balance and preparing for the next mighty effort.

"Are you going to stand there all day?"

Augusta "Gussie" McPherson is under orders by her social-climbing mother to learn to ride at the stable of former U.S. Army colonel Alexi Meslenko, who lends "hardass" a new level of granite. Gussie, a distinctly modern teen, scorns her mother's pretentions and regards the matter warily while her little brother Sandy attacks the lessons with enthusiasm. But their positions switch as Gussie grows interested in the sport and Sandy comes up against failure for the first time in his pampered existence. It doesn't hurt that Meslenko has a cute godson who also rides.

This bit of horsey lit takes place in the center of the northern New Jersey hunter/jumper establishment, where monied parents buy expensive show horses for their children and stern equestrians have to be as skilled with handling overbearing adults as at teaching equitation to their offspring. The tone is outdated - a very 1960's or 1970's dialogue - part of the time, and the rest of the time it has a faintly British air to it.

In one central scene, a girl has a complete meltdown in a class and rails against domineering Colonel Meslenko:

Maybe the rest of the kids think you're God Almighty, but I don't. I've had teachers a lot better than you. No responsible teacher would put a girl on a horse like that. You're a self-centered egomaniac, and I for one have had more than enough of you! You can take your stupid little riding school and flush it!

Gussie, who just chapters earlier would have been this girl, now sits silently with the rest of the class as the colonel lectures them at length about what the girl, now departed, had done wrong. At the very end, though, she observes that although the colonel was right in what he did (putting the girl on a rough horse), the girl was right too - he was too rough on her.

At the end, Gussie attends her first horse show. In her summer of lessons, she's gone from a complete newbie to jumping 3'6" a feat mentioned with a snicker in some horsey conversations about favorite children's books. Some of the action seems questionable - Gussie constantly refers to kicking her horses forward, and there is a lot of emphasis on gripping with the knees - but some of it rings true. The moment Gussie loses confidence in a jump, the clever grey schoolhorse Nursemaid quits on her. Their argument about going over the fence is summed up in one of the few scenes in a horsey book to show the rider using physical force:

Tightening the reins, I kicked her into a canter, my eyes fixed on the spot where I had calculated we would become airborne. When we reached it, I gave her a tremendous kick, slapping her on the rump with my hand for good measure.

They sail over, though I'd quibble about the idea of a horse 'gliding' to a landing.

Nursemaid - gray mare schoolhorse
Moonbeam - bay gelding schoolhorse
Lilly Val - gray mare
Hedgehopper - dark bay Thoroughbred gelding with three white stockings
Miss Tish - chestnut Thoroughbred mare with white blaze, four stockings
Myshkin - black Thoroughbred gelding

Other Books
Footlight Summer (1983)
Fire Island Forfeit (1984)
Fritzi's Winter (1979)
Finder (1981)
Showdown At Apple Hill (1983)

About the Author
There is a history professor of the same name at Rutgers and although the world of horsey fiction for kids seems remote from the the world of scholarly works on American history, the name is identical and the location is right; The Colonel And Me is set in northern New Jersey, several of the books above are set in New York, and Rutgers is in north-central New Jersey. And both appear to have had books published by Atheneum. So I believe there's a good chance they're the same person.

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