Monday, July 19, 2010

The Horse-Tamer (1958)

One interesting side effect of being around horses is having a unique inside look into that vast stretch of human history that came before the internal combustion engine. With all apologies to my childhood self, who bitterly resented the family car for not being a family horse, I have to admit that the horse was a major stumbling block to human ambition. Having your financial world depending on a fragile, flighty animal whose tendency to bolt has inspired more than one doting owner to refer to them as very large bunny rabbits and whose ability to cripple themselves without even trying has caused those same owners to say that horses were born trying to commit suicide... well, hanging your society's health and wealth on this animal was madness.

Even when they weren't running amok spilling humans and cargo off cobblestones and sideswiping pedestrians (for a recent modern equivalent, see the news stories about that 4th of July parade in Iowa where a team spooked and caused mayhem including one death) there was the issue that they could get sick. En masse. And then your economy did too, since you needed the equines to deliver goods and people. The best example came in 1872, when an equine flu swept the United States, sickening thousands of horses and crippling the nation's largest cities. The Great Epizootic brought American trade to a halt, provoked a lot of second-hand scrambling by urban centers to police the health of the cities' horses as a way of policing the health of the cities themselves, and helped create a six-year economic depression.

No wonder people embraced the machine. But until they had the option, we were stuck with the horse. And the horse was stuck with us. For every miserable person cursing his lame transportation, there were dozens of horses suffering from people who had no idea how to train them. Which is where Farley sets his tale.

The Horse-Tamer

Walter Farley

1958, Random House

(1980 paperback edition shown, il. Ruth Sanderson)

When the Black bruises his foot racing overseas, Alec and Henry Dailey set off for home to rest him. Delayed at takeoff, the two horsemen pass the time by talking horses, and Henry recounts his youthful experiences with his older brother Bill, a horse tamer. When Alec asks why they were called tamers, Henry answers:

"Training takes time, Alec, as you know, and these men had no time. They did a job in a matter of hours--a few days at most--and then went on to the next case. Some of the horses, too, were worse than wild animals--vicious, mean horses. Most often, of course, they were the result of bad handling by their owners. But come to think of it, what kind of job would you and I do on that plane outside? We're no mechanics and, as I say, so many owners in the old days weren't horsemen. They just needed a horse to get around. They made mistakes, plenty of 'em--and they suffered for it. So did their horses.

And then the actions goes back in time to 1883, when Henry is a kid sent to spend a summer with his 30-year-old brother Bill, a carriage maker. Bill's more interested in horses than in what they pull, and a chance meeting with an Irish peddler named Finn Caspersen turns him into an itinerant horse tamer. The brothers and Finn begin touring the towns and small cities of the East with Bill taking on every community's worst horse and turning out impressive performances.

Suddenly Wild Bess reached for him, her head as pointed as a snake's. Bill jumped away, pulling her head around and staying close to her hindquarters. Her long tail cut the air and without thinking he grabbed the tail with his free hand and hung on. She spun him around and he barely kept his feet as they made several tight circles.

Finn's happy; they're making money. But what Bill wants to do teach the owners, not give a 'show' and the two clash repeatedly over this difference. When Bill catches Finn selling fake 'cures' like a medicine man, he furiously tells him they're through. Finn, calculating, tells him he's learned plenty from him and is going to do his own show, his way. Bill continues his way, and gains respect and prestige, but begins hearing about Finn's enterprise, which has become wildly successful. The brothers head to New York City, where Finn's show has been enthralling audiences.

Here, hometown boy Farley indulges himself in one of those classic fawning looks at The City:

They found the city itself as forbidding as it was strange, for the streets were crammed with block after block of houses and buildings. Yet they admitted to each other that they felt the strong pull of New York. Here was violent power and excitement! It was a city that would be forever on the rise and constantly changing. They wondered if this in some way was not beauty in itself.

I'm not saying he's wrong, but oh, the inevitability of a New Yorker drifting off to gloat over how spiffy they are.

Back on point. Henry and Bill track Finn down, and the usually gentle Bill resorts to ruthless, dangerous tactics to force the fraud out of his racket.

An unusual book for Farley. His only foray into historical fiction, it was otherwise similar in tone to his later books - a little more mystical, a little less character-driven and more heavily plotted than his earlier work. Henry has almost no character as a kid, Finn is a stock big guy with a little conscience, and only Bill has any depth but he's mostly a stock little guy hero. The horse taming methods aren't exactly going to win Bill any accolades today, but in the context of a short-term "tamer" trying to provide a quick fix in an era filled with horses suffering much worse from ignorant owners, it's not a nightmare. Bill repeatedly says he's trying to teach the owners more than the horses, but the owners resist and we see mostly Bill with the horses. The final scene, where Bill springs a nasty surprise on his former partner, is exciting, as are the other tangles between Bill and dangerous horses. The horses--Wild Bess, Tar Heel, and Panic--actually get more depth than most of the people.


Wikipedia for 1872 horse flu

Long Riders Guilde Academic Foundation - the flu

Wikipedia for Niblo's Garden, the venue where Bill has the showdown with Finn

AskArt on illustrator James Schucker

Random House

Other Covers

2007 paperback from Yearling

1958 hardcover at FantasticFiction - by James Schucker who also illustrated Big Black Horse, Little Black, A Pony, Little Black Goes To The Circus, and The Little Black Pony Races.

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