Monday, March 22, 2010

Trumper (1963)


Hetty Burlingame Beatty, il. Joshua Tolford

1963, Houghton Mifflin Company

Trumper dashed down the road, the farm wagon bouncing and clattering behind him, milk cans flying in all directions. Carl hauled on the reins and yelled at him to stop, but Trumper had no such intention. With a flourishing buckjump he landed the wagon in the ditch, the harness broke, and he galloped off by himself.

Mark Sullivan was thrilled when his dad, farmer Tod Sullivan, bought the dappled grey gelding Thumper off a neighbor. Thumper's flashy and exciting compared to the farm's two draft horses, and Mark just knows that with Thumper, he can win the annual 4-H contest for best all-around light-weight farm horse. The prize, a purebred Angus calf, will start Mark off on his dreamed-of beef herd. The only problem is that Trumper is unused to farm work, having been a saddle horse, and pitches a fit when he's hitched to anything. In short order he's broken the hayrake, the milk wagon and two harnesses, and earned the undying enmity of Mark's older brother Carl, who was the unfortunate driver in all these episodes. And there's no place on a working farm for a useless horse. Trumper will have to go.

Trumper sploshed into the swamp, Mark guiding him skillfully in rounding them up. In a few minutes the cows gave up and headed lazily toward the pasture gate, with Mark and Trumper at their heels. Trumper had never herded cows before, but he decided it was fun to make these big clumsy creatures go where Mark wanted them to. He took to the job with real enthusiasm.

"Good boy!" Mark said again, stroking Trumper's handsome neck. "I bet you can learn to work on a farm if they give you half a chance!"

You know Trumper won't go. Mark manages to train the horse on the sly, leading to one of those classic moments where the father has to reprimand his son for lying even while he has to reward him for the hard work he put into the project he was lying about. And in short order, Trumper, the horse no one could handle, becomes the reliable horse for light work - as long as Mark handles him. And they do compete in the 4-H contest, which comes along halfway through, and is composed of three parts: pulling a fully loaded milk wagon through a course without spilling the milk or knocking over a flag; pulling a hayrake through a field, judged on speed and the straightness of the rows; and herding cattle.

As a child, I had a weakness for farm stories - as in, stories set on working farms where the kids raised piglets and calves and belonged to 4-H and did chores and such. I yearned for this lifestyle, where pets and animals and nature abounded, and kids didn't just own horses, they casually rode off bareback to go swimming down the ol' swimming hole after haying on a sweltering August day. I have since come to recognize the limitations to this picture, thanks to the gory stories supplied by people who actually did grow up on farms, and to the farm memoirs I also became addicted to as an adult (and will undoubtedly find a way to shoehorn in here eventually). But back when I was small and reading any book with a horse on the cover, I was still happily innocent and I loved this book. I loved the details about Mark's piglets, his Angus calves, his chores, and all that work. Funny, how work seems so wonderful to little kids. All those complicated tasks! And how wonderful that adults know how to do them! And how amazing that another kid knows how to do them! I suspect this has a lot to do with the enduring popularity of the Little House books.

There are odd holes in the story; the story is sometimes told from Trumper's point of view, and he has a very human way of thinking. I found this completely believable and compelling as a child but have to question as an adult whether its realistic or even possible that a horse who's never been trained to harness and who's been freaked out by the unexpected introduction of same already would actually calm down and cooperate just because a little boy is desperately asking him to.

There was real fear in Mark's voice now, and Trumper heard it. He stopped in his tracks, turned his head, and looked at Mark sitting on the rake behind him. He realized he was scaring Mark badly and he was ashamed. He must stop scaring him somehow!

Also, it seems odd that the farmer, who clearly likes animals and understands them, would not realize that a saddle horse needs to be taught to pull a wagon, and that simply slapping on a harness and attaching it to a wheeled vehicle is not going to end well.

But despite these problems, I still like this book. The weaknesses are not enough to bring down the strong structure. The sympathetic but limited father, the superior older brother, the troublesome horse, the beautiful calves, the merciless weather... Farm stories have an ingrained power to them because the drama is always writ so large; the peril isn't just to your standing in the local show circuit or your ownership of your horse or even your horse's life - it's to your home, your land, your whole family, your entire existence. It can be done poorly, but when it's done even remotely well, it's hard to look away.


Skipper - dog

Trumper - dapple grey gelding

Kit - Clydesdale

Duke - Clydesdale

Royal - black Angus calf

Chief - black Angus calf

Josephine - black Angus calf

About the author


She was a sculptor and illustrator as well as a writer. She appears to have travelled a lot, and married late, in 1959. She and her husband, both artists, must have done pretty well for themselves, as they wintered in Bermuda in a house she designed. Horses, gardening and square dancing were some of her interests.

Equine bibliography




Equine bibliography - easy/beginner books

Moorland Pony

Rebel, the Reluctant Racehorse

Bucking Horse

Little Wild Horse

Droopy (donkey)

Other bibliography

Little Owl Indian

Saint Francis and the Wolf


Voyage of the Sea Wind

Bryn (dog)

Topsy (dog) (easy book)

Illustrator - Joshua Tolford


He also illustrated Beatty's book Blitz.


Northwest Digital Archives (NWDA)

Trumper on Google Books

Oklahoms State University Department of Animal Science Breeds of Livestock - Angus


Image of a horse-drawn hay rake

Another image of a horse-drawn hay rake

1 comment:

AC said...

Yes, I'm right there with you on the appeal of farm stories. And, to a lesser degree, any stories that featured detailed descriptions of how to make or fix things were fascinating to me as a kid. But there's something special about the countryside that calls to the city kid. I still feel that my life won't be complete if I don't eventually live in the country.