Friday, December 31, 2010

Blueberry (1963)

As a kid I read anything with an equine theme, but I truly loved the few books where the plot remained strongly focused on the kid and the horse. Winning the race, driving the cattle across Texas, capturing the wild stallion, rescuing the trapped foal from quicksand - yes, the big drama plots are nice. But the smaller plots were satisfying. They were the essence of the horse bug for me, those books where girl and horse would just ride around, in the woods and along the river and down to the creek for a swim on a hot summer afternoon.

And then the skein of days went unwinding. There was in them a unique completeness, a fulfillment. When she turned to Blueberry in the blind instinctive way of one in first-love, yet unhurt, the mare was always there. Wherever possible, Kristin moved with the horse at her side. Sometimes in the hot nights, noisy with the sounds of katydids and crickets, or a wakeful bird, she brought her pillow and quilt out to the paddock. The mare became so used to her presence that she wouldn't rise from where she rested, but watched the girl as she made her bed and lay down nearby. Kristin would awake to find the horse had risen and was chewing on her hay or waiting in soft animal fashion for Kristin to direct their day.


Helga Sandburg
1963, The Dial Press

Kristin, a dreamy 14-year-old Michigan girl whose hard-headed father is starting to worry will never learn to study or even just focus, desires a horse.

The summer streamed out before Kristin in a huge empty space of time. Every girl in the eighth grade had been boy-crazy except for Kristin. She was famous for being horse-crazy. Danny had a beat-up sidesaddle which he'd let Kristin strap on a log when she was nine or ten. Sometimes she felt half her life was spent at fantasies; nothing was real. In winters when she dragged her toboggan out on the snow-deep dunes she still called it a golden mare, whispering a name to herself. It was all imagining. She felt fiercely that she ought to have the real thing.

Summer vacation has just started, but 14-year-old Kristin's joy is broken by her father's anger; he's upset that her last report card was bad, that she's consistently forgotten to care for her pet guinea pigs, and that her best friend Danny Wasilewski is a half-Gypsy boy. Kristin has no intention of obeying her father's demand that she have no more to do with Danny, and her regrets about her grades and her wandering responsibilities take a back seat to her longing for a horse. Her two sisters, older and more beautiful and more capable, are strong farm girls whose pride and joy is their goat herd, and all their plans involve agricultural school and farming. They also despair of absent-minded Kristin, but they agree to help her convince their dad to let her buy a little buckskin mare from a carnival.

The mare turned her head, the black mane drooped uncombed, the forelock straggled over her brown eyes; her slender almost-black legs contrasted with the sandy-colored coat. Field burrs had knotted in her tail. Like the others she needed grooming. They looked at each other and as the mare turned back to stand with head drooped, Kristin knew her desire.

Kristin, swearing to improve her grades and bolstered by support from her mother and sisters, convinces her father to buy the little mare named Blueberry. She earns the mare's hay by doing chores for her sisters, and glories in first ownership, riding to the beach and through the woods at all hours of the day and night, having secret picnics with Danny and teaching Blueberry to swim in the lake.

Danny's life is going the other way. His gypsy mother is dead, his Polish father is a grieving, struggling truck-farmer, and he's frequently confronted with people (like Kristin's father) who harbor prejudices against both gypsies and Poles. In the fall, Mr. Wasilewski is so short of money he's forced to send Danny away to live with a harsh uncle, and the boy runs away. Kristin spends a long winter battling grades and time to cram chores, riding, and studying into the too-short hours, lonely for her missing friend.

Kristin's family is one domineering male against a mild wife and three daughters who tend to assume they can overcome his objections. Here and there, throughout the book, are short passages from the father's point of view as he regards, baffled, his womenfolk. Typical of its time, it fiercely presents support for equality and fairness for various people even while maintaining the norm of a girl focusing on a boy's needs and pain. Kristin, repeatedly dubbed a tomboy, is a strong girl, but she is given the womanly instinct of focusing excessively on male trouble.

She knew Uncle Jock figured all boys were in need of subjugation, forgetting Danny'd had a taste of authority while he took over a man's role, caring for his father and the farm.

While this is altogether a fine book with a strong, interesting heroine, several involving plots and a variety of well-developed characters, it's the powerful presentation of the bond between human and horse that makes it stand out.

Bimbo - collie
Smoky - crow
Teddy - Abyssinian guinea pig
Sophie - Nubian goat
Mr. Shams - blue Persian cat
Hurricane - bay gelding
Blueberry - buckskin mare
Red Wolf - chestnut Quarter Horse stallion

About the Author
Helga Sandburg wrote two books about Kristin and her horse, Blueberry (1963) and Gingerbread (1967) . They were set in Michigan, where Helga grew up on a property near Lake Michigan. The youngest of three sisters, Helga had two extremely famous near relatives. Her father was the poet Carl Sandburg and her uncle was the photographer and painter Ed Steichen. She was close to her mother, and the two of them began raising dairy goats at their Michigan home in the 1930s. She attended the University of Chicago, married three times and wrote several books.

Cleveland Woman - Helga Sandburg
Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library - The Dial Press
The Dial Press - Random House
Dial Books For Young Readers - Penguin

Other Books (equine)
Gingerbread (1967) - sequel

The Dial Press
Founded in 1923, it changed hands several times. With third owner B.C. Hoffman, it began publishing more popular novels, including the inestimable Frank Yerby's 1945 novel The Foxes Of Harrow. It was bought out by Dell Publishing Company during the 1960s; Dell was bought by Doubleday in 1976. The children's division was sold to Dutton, which eventually ended up with Penguin (owned by media giant Pearson) while the adult imprint survives as part of Random House.

No comments: