Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Horse Named Peaceable (1982)

A Horse Named Peaceable

Isabelle Holland, il. Frederick Porter IV (cover)

1982, Lothrop, Lee & Shephard Books

"..I don't think a relationship with a horse is a good substitute for relationships with people. I mean it. You don't like school. The teachers tell me you don't join in many activities. Your grades - well, we won't go into them today. We've had that out before and it's never been pleasant for either of us. In fact, all you do care about is that horse of yours."

After her mother's death two years ago, 12-year-old Jessamy West and her father have grown increasingly distant, and one favorite bone of contention is her horse, Peaceable. David Wainscott is an Episcopal bishop who feels that the money and love that his daughter lavishes on the horse is an immoral waste. Jessamy strongly suspects he also finds it embarassing that he, a famous activist concerned with world poverty, owns an animal which is so often used as a symbol of self-indulgent wealth. She only got the horse through the intercession of her mother, who understood loving animals; in the years since her mother's death, Jessamy has worked around a disreputable but cheap local barn to earn Peaceable's keep, but now David is departing on a long trip to help the poor overseas, and Jessamy must be sent away to boarding school. David, not understanding the bond or the shadiness of the barn, is late with board payments. Jessamy's headmistress, firmly instructed by David to keep her from running off to be with the horse all the time, keeps her from visiting often. And when Jessamy gets to the barn one day, Peaceable's gone. Has he been sold to the meat man, or gone to auction?

All my friends - all the kids at school and their older brother and sisters at college - thought the Bishop was super-marvelous. The new Church in action. Etcetera. It made it hard. I couldn't very well knock my own father - at least I hadn't been able to until now. But if he was so super-marvelous, why didn't he take proper care that Peaceable would be all right - particularly since he sent me away where I couldn't keep an eye on him. It was my super-marvelous father's fault that Peaceable was now... might be...

Jessamy, incandescant with rage at her father and determined to track down her horse, goes home to get funds from the empty house. And runs into a would-be burglar, a teen with a flair for language and a bitter voice who tells her to call him Rudd, and his collie mix dog Weaver. The three disguise themselves and leave the city, travelling to a country auction where Peaceable was supposed to be sold.

Jessamy, now posing as Rudd's kid brother Josh, argues endlessly with Rudd, who challenges her rage at her father and her beliefs in general. Rudd's story comes out slowly; like Jessamy, he's poured his love into an animal, the collie mix Weaver. He also ran away, though in his case he was running away from his father, a preacher who was also a drunk.

An unusual horse book in that the horse actually doesn't appear in most of it. It's smart and well-written, and a strong story. It deals with several tough issues - how good, decent people can do horrible, irresponsible things with animals because they just don't think very deeply about them, and how the love of an animal isn't somehow a perversion of what should be love for another person. Although the horse is absent most of the time, it's a loving portrait of the power of the bond they can inspire.

Isabelle Holland


Holland was an American born overseas who didn't live in the U.S. until she was in college. She worked for 25 years in publishing, mostly in publicity, with stints at Lippincott and Putnam. She began to write full-time in 1969, and eventually published over 50 books. Two of her books were made into films, the better-known of which was 1993's The Man Without A Face, in which a disfigured teacher tutors a hen-pecked teenaged boy.

I've included a link to another blog's review of The Man Without A Face, below, despite the complete lack of relevance to this blog, because I find it so interesting that an author whose work repeatedly confronts hard topics went so very weakly vague and indecisive when it came to homosexuality. Also because the Queer YA blog is kind of cool. In one review, the author writes This traditional problem novel manages to be both gruesome and cookie-cutter, which is quite the succinct indictment.

Holland's other horse books


Toby The Splendid

The Easter Donkey

Holland's other dog books

The Unfrightened Dark


Peaceable - grey 15.2 gelding

Weaver - black and white border collie mix dog


de Grummond Collection

New York Times obituary
IMDB page

Queer YA - review of The Man Without A Face


AC said...

If Holland shares the upper-class, Anglican, liberal background of the main character in A Horse Named Peaceable, a "vague and indecisive" attitude toward homosexuality would be very typical. Perhaps even cutting edge in 1972. I've never read this book, but the description here reminds me a bit of "A House Like a Lotus" by Madeleine L'Engle (1984-American Episcopalian) and "Pippa Passes" by Rumer Godden (1994!-British convert to Catholicism). In both of these YA novels, a young girl is thrust into adult sexuality by unwelcome advances on the part of an older female mentor (portrayed with a mixture of sympathy and freakish horror). It's been in the back of my mind for awhile to wonder what was up with this preoccupation with same-sex student/teacher relationships. Might be interesting to look into the evolution of theology and politics surrounding homosexuality in liberal Christianity. Well, that is if I was an English major or an M.Div. student looking for a thesis topic.

Sarah said...

True, it's so easy to forget how much attitudes have changed just since 1982. What seems waffling and less than heroic now was probably at the very upper limit of what you could get away with then. Though this whole thing is getting away from horse books :) Maybe I could do a post on horse books with gay characters? Offhand, I can think of two - Susan Juby's "Another Kind Of Cowboy" (which is YA and not the cheesey romance novel it sounds) and Ron Koertge's "Arizona Kid." Though the latter stretches the idea of a horse book a bit.