Friday, January 15, 2010

Pamela And The Blue Mare (1952)

Pamela And The Blue Mare

Alice C. O'Connell, il. Paul Brown

1952, Little, Brown and Company

The horse behind her, the one with the sleek legs and gentle face, was standing up on his hind legs, his front feet waving over her head.

Pamela is 9 years old and recovering from a bout of scarlet fever. Sent to her father's parents' farm, Paget Hill, for a rest, she has one problem; Grandfather Paget raises and sells horses, and ever since having a horse rear up in fright near her at a horse show, Pam's been afraid of horses. When Gran learns of this, his eyebrows wriggle, something Pam will soon discover means he's up to something. But in this case, fate lends a hand.

"It's a new colt, Pammy. She was born in the night, and her mother's too sick to look after her. We're trying to get her to take some milk."

The old baby bottle works its magic, and Pam bonds with the little blue roan filly she dubs Frosty Morning. Frosty is soon returned to her dam, while Pam swallows the bad news that a) she can't ride Frosty for years, and b) she has to learn to ride on one of those scary big horses.

And before Pam knew what was happening, she was sitting on Charm's back and her legs were hanging down, reaching for stirrups that were much too long. Collier remedied that quickly, and when her feet were comfortably settled James appeared and took hold of Charm's bridle. Collier stayed on one side and Gran on the other. Gran showed her how to hold the reins and James started walking, and so did everyone else. Pam forgot the reins and grabbed at the saddle and held on for dear life.

This was, for me, the best part of the book. Pam's riding education is very slow at the start, and the early emphasis on gradual, positive work for both horses and riders was lovely.

"But Gran, Brendan didn't look as though he liked jumping for Bill. He went so fast and then he got all sort of scared and wild-looking, and when he did try to jump the wall and fell Bill started hitting him. I didn't like it."

"There's my girl." Gran put down his paper and took off his glasses and looked at Pam for the first time that morning. "You're learning something about horses, Pam, when you don't like a performance like that one. And what's more, you know why you don't like it. Now tell me what kind of performance you would like."

"We-e-ll, I don't think a horse should feel as though he had to hurry, he should..." Pam stopped to think.... "He should look as though jumping were easy, no as if it were something to be afraid of."

Pam learns how to stand up for her horse, refusing to let Bill induce her to ride Charm too roughly, and learns how to continue challenging herself by switching horses to the younger and, after Charm, slightly intimidating Murphy for jumping lessons.

After this first vacation at the farm, Pam returns home and time necessarily speeds up so we can get Frosty old enough to start serious schooling on what she needs to become a saddle horse. The blue mare is 4 before Pam rides her for the first time; in the interim, Pam has been increasing her riding education and taking part in her first foxhunt.

For the next few minutes Pam felt nothing but a sensation of speed with the wind whistling through her ears, and the quick lift and drop of panels as Murphy sailed over them, and the consciousness of Gran's back just in front of her. Then things began to come back into focus; she was able to see the pack streaming across a field ahead, looking as though a blanket might have covered them, and to hear the high-pitched voices as they came back to her on the wind.

The action continues steadily from here: Pam schools the blue mare, rides her in hunts, begins the very start of a romance with Bill, who's learned better ways from Gran, and ends up riding in the big class at a big horse show.

This is the first book in a somewhat rare series. It is one of those books which some remember with great fondness, so I don't want to criticize it too severely, but I was disappointed. The writing is adequate but never more, and the characters are flat and predictable. The plot is promising but slow-paced and meandering. And even by conservative, old-fashioned standards, the harping on how Pam's father and grandfather are always right is overwhelming. In this book, all the men in Pam's family are guiding father figures overseeing their girls and women, who are reassured and gently bullied into acting against their instincts and judgement and always learn - surprise - that Daddy was right all along. Not that Pam should have run off and gotten a motorcycle, but couldn't the men in her family ever be wrong? A saving grace is that this perfection is not extended to the boys. Bill repeatedly does the wrong thing and has to learn - partly from Pam but mostly from Gran - the right way. This is a big step, considering how many older children's books feature a twerpy boy acting the little prince with his female playmate.

The grand finale class at the end of the book is a Corinthian class. I'd vaguely heard of this before, but wanted to clarify it for myself before this review, so went looking for a definition. This and the Appointments class are apparently largely exhibition classes which have gone out of style today, but were very popular back when more horse shows had the big outside courses. All competitors had to be members of a recognized hunt and wore hunt livery; they were judged on genuine adherence to both the practical and traditional demands of foxhunting, and on sheer style. A very interesting choice of contests. The Super Important Competition is a classic ending for horse stories - the big race, the big jumping class, etc. Having the big class be about perfection of style in a competition which by its very nature goes no further - ie, no Olympic trials, no national championship, just the very finite goal of being the best foxhunter at this show - meshes perfectly with the insular, country gentleman tone of the book. Pamela wins glory for her way of life and her background, not particularly for herself.

A thread on the discussion forum for the redoubtable American horse sports (particularly foxhunting) magazine, The Chronicle Of The Horse, on the Appointments and Corinthian classes.



Frosty Morning - 16h blue roan mare

June Dawn - bay mare

Charm - bay gelding

Brendan - chestnut gelding ruined by Bill's family


Gallant Patrick


Toby - Sealyham Terrier

About the author

Alice Louise O'Connell was born in Minneapolis and spent most of her life in Minnesota. In 1948, she obtained a Masters in education from her undergrad alma mater, the University of Minnesota, then worked as the Head of Aquatics and Instructor of Physical Education at Winthrop College in South Carolina. She also bred, showed and judged AKC Norwegian Elkhounds.

All the above was gleaned from the dust jacket of The Blue Mare In The Olympic Trials. O'Connell is extremely elusive online. The search is more distracting because of an actress and (apparently) an Australian author of the same name. This O'Connell seems to exist only as the author of the two blue mare books.


Anonymous said...

While the story may not be the most wildly exciting, the beauty of the O'Connell books is the incorporation of the Littauer training system for humans and horses. Littauer is supposed to have been her consultant on things equine, and it shows. One could use Pamela and The Blue Mare as a guide to bringing a young horse from before backing to finished hunter.

The next book, The Blue Mare at the Olympic Trials, takes Frosty Morning all the way to the Olympics as an event horse in 1952, even though Pam is on the US Show Jumping Team. Unfortunately, women were not allowed to ride in the Olympics at that date.

The books are treasures for anyone interested in horse training.

Anonymous said...

I discovered O'Connell's "Blue Mare" books at the public library when I was 9, living in the Midwest in the Corn Belt. I read them voraciously as I was quite horse-crazy, and had them practically memorized by the time my parents moved us from a farm, where we had a an old buckskin mare to learn on, to a small town where I had access to an acre of pasture and used my allowance to buy a yearling colt to train. No, I did not go through the 4-H Club. I learned everything I knew about breaking and training a horse from those books and trained my horse to jump and do all sorts of other things. I went further much later as an adult, got instruction from a professional trainer, trained and rode other horses, and rode to hounds on both my 10 year old first horse and a Thoroughbread mare I had bought from a friend. I continued training and showing up until 1980,
To put a book written in the early 1950s in the context of today's world, when family structure and general customs have changed enormously is just silly. There is a vast difference between the way things were when I was 9, and the world we live in now, 65 years later, long after those books were written.