Friday, January 8, 2010

The Black Stallion (1941)

One of the most exciting days of my childhood was finding the entire Black Stallion series at a thrift shop. They were the 1977 trade paperbacks, which had beautiful covers (I'd love to know who the illustrator was), and I must have read each one dozens of times. When I dug them out of my parents' attic a few years ago, they'd been read to pieces. The covers were delicately attached to their bindings, the spines were cracked, the pages honorably battle-worn. No matter. I lovingly transported them and their layers of dust home, and they now live in a safe bookshelf alongside some boxes of my childhood Breyers, and amidst my other great second-hand Black Stallion find, a collection of first editions I stumbled over in a church rummage sale years later.

So it's safe to say I'm a little biased in favor of the Farley books. Just a warning.

The tribe of the horse-crazy has its own version of what constitutes a classic book. Those who dream of riding in the Maclay Finals cherish The Monday Horses. Wannabe cowgirls love Glen Rounds and Will James. Social climbers love the gracious plenty of C.W. Anderson, whose little characters never just had a horse, they had Man O'War's more promising grandson. The depraved have a lingering kitchsy fondness for the sort of horsey series where girls named Stevie can't decide what's more important, prepping Algonquin Star Of Wonder for the big show, helping their BFF adjust to her diabetes or winning back their boyfriend from the mean girl with the super-expensive horse.

And the non-horse-obsessed world has its own version of classic books with horse themes. The Red Pony is the most obvious case of disconnect - a book about a horse that's actually as much about the horse as it is about the 2004 presidential race, and whose ending has caused serious cases of nausea in generations of innocent children. Other classics - Smoky, My Friend Flicka, Black Beauty- are Classics, capital C. But they're not particularly amenable to younger readers because of the sophistication and density of the writing, as well as the relentless realism built into the stories. They may be marketed as children's books, but they were not written for children and it shows.

One place where both worlds come together is in the 1941 book The Black Stallion. I've never heard of a horse nut who dismissed this book's position as a classic even if it wasn't in their personal top 10, and its success as a 69-year-old book that's still in print (and the connection with a critically acclaimed film) seems to have given it respectability in the wider world.

The series as a whole is an intense fantasy, far more wild than any other horse book. Alec Ramsay is shipwrecked on a desert island with a magnificent killer stallion who he tames, takes back to Queens, and rides in a match race with the world's best racers. Later, he founds a Thoroughbred breeding and training farm, wins the Kentucky Derby with the stallion's first filly, the Triple Crown with his first colt, the Hambletonian with his trotting colt, becomes lost and amnesiac in the American West, encounters an evil magician in the Florida Everglades, travels to the Middle East and becomes enmeshed in various Arabic feuds, etc. This is go-for-broke horse book plotting at its most fearless. Nothing in the Black Stallion series is remotely believable. But the books work. They've endured for over fifty years because they're beautifully written for children. Clear, simple writing, solid characters and a fantasy which is completely grounded in realistic details forces belief. Wonderful, and classic by any definition

The Black Stallion

Walter Farley

1941, Random House

Alec heard a whistle - shrill, loud, clear, unlike anything he'd ever heard before. He saw a mighty black horse rear on its hind legs, its forelegs striking out into the air. A white scarf was tied across its eyes. The crowd broke and ran.

Alexander 'Alec' Ramsay, Jr. watches in disbelief as a huge black stallion is, with a great deal of trouble, loaded onto the tramp steamer taking him home from a summer in India. The boy has learned to ride while visiting his Uncle Ralph in Bombay, and has fallen in love with horses, but knows his chances to ride back home in New York City will be few. As the Drake steams on toward England, Alec cautiously befriends the furious horse, whose constant assault on the walls of his makeshift stall ring through the ship. And then a storm sinks the boat, and horse and boy are stranded on an island together.

When rescue arrives, Alec and the Black are bonded, but the horse is still savage and wild with others. Alec's parents look askance at this scary horse, but let him keep him down at a neighbor's rickety barn, along with a huckster's tired grey gelding, Napoleon. The neighbor is Henry Dailey, a former racehorse jockey and trainer.

There they stopped and waited for Henry. Finally he showed up - a short, chunky man with large shoulders. He came toward them walking in jerky, bowlegged strides. His white shirt tails flapped in the night wind. He wiped a large hand across his mouth. "Right with you," he yelled.

The Black promptly jumps out of his pasture and goes running off into the dawn streets of Flushing with Henry and Alec in pursuit. Despite the race which follows at the end of the book, this has always seemed the most exciting chapter. The idea of this huge wild horse roaming city streets, certain to get into trouble if he meets anyone but Alec, is haunting. As are Alec's midnight rides at Belmont Park.

Suddenly the Black bolted. His action shifted marvelously as his powerful legs swept over the ground. Fleet hoofbeats made a clattering roar in Alec's ears. The stallion's speed became greater and greater. Alec's body grew numb, the terrific speed made it hard for him to breathe. Once again the track became a blur, and he was conscious only of the endless white fence slipping by.

But, of course, they do make it to Chicago for the great race between California wonder-horse Sun Raider and Kentucky champion Cyclone. The gray Sun Raider is nearly as large and savage as the Black, and the two horses start a fight at the start that leaves the Black bleeding. And then the starter, not noticing Alec start to climb down to check on his horse's leg, sends them off.

This single book sparked 17 sequels, a film, a TV series, four Breyer models and a stuffed animal, a dinner theater attraction in Orlando, and has recently given rise to a literacy project aimed at encouraging first graders to read.


Random House

The Black Stallion website

Arabian Nights

The Black Stallion Literacy Project


TV series (aka The Adventures Of The Black Stallion)

Breyer model #401 (1981-1988)

Breyer model #3030 (1983-1993) The Black Stallion Returns set

Breyer model #3000 (1982-1985) The Black Stallion and Alec

Breyer - model #1153 (Model and Book Set)

Breyer - plush toy

An example of a tramp steamer

The Kissena Corridor Park in Flushing - the area where the Black ended up on his runaway

Postcard of Arlington Race Track, likely site of the match race


1941 Random House (hardcover) with Keith Ward illustrations (above)

1941 Random House (paperback)

1977 Random House (trade paperback)

1979 Scholastic Books (paperback) movie tie-in with photo cover

1991 Random House (hardcover) anniversary edition with Domenick D'Andrea illustrations

1991 (trade paperback)

Other Versions

Picture Books

Big Black Horse (1953) adaptation illustrated by James Schucker

The Black Stallion (1986) Beginner Books (hardcover) with Sandy Rabinowitz illustrations

UK edition

1992 Hodder Children's Books - Knight

Movie Photo Book

1979 Random House oversized


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