Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Horse books that aren't

Looks promising, doesn't it? A girl, a horse, waves. And to be accurate, there are horses in the plot.

13-year-old Alyssa lost her parents to a hurricane when she was ten, and has been mute ever since. She can't even tell her beloved grandfather that she would really rather he not sell their small riding stable on the Gulf Coast and send her to live with her disapproving aunt Melinda. Despite the presence of several factors I can't stand - including a harpy aunt with a saintly husband, a heroine presented as an eternal and pretty victim, and a male relative with a bit o' dialect from t'old country - it's a well-written book. Just not a horse book.

The most famous horse-book-that-isn't has to be The Red Pony, Steinbeck's bloody Valentine for the pony set.

In writing this blog, I've been flexible in my definition of 'pony book,' largely because the genre as traditionally defined is a small, starved portion of American children's books. We just do not have many books about adolescent girls riding in gymkhanas. So I've been easy-going, as if you haven't noticed. My guideline has been, if it whinnies or brays, it can go in. And I'm a sucker for illustration, so I've included picture books, and then I'm still recovering from a childhood of Walter Farley and C.W. Anderson so a disproportionate amount of racing posts have snuck in. So where does the line go for 'horse book' and 'not-a-horse-book'?

I'd say it goes between books which treat the horse as a symbol (of girlish childhood, of freedom, etc.) and those that treat them as actual horses. I suppose the former isn't terribly unreasonable. Though it remains a mystery to me, there are a lot of people who grew up around horses and essentially thought of them as if they were bikes; fun, somewhat useful, a nice thing to have, if you're a good person you take good care of it, but nothing to get all excited about.

Though, when you cut it like that, was National Velvet a horse book? Was My Friend Flicka? Both focused on their dreamy heroes and to a large extent the horses, although they took a satisfying chunk of center stage, were symbols of dreams and growth. Can a book that attempts to be more than genre writing be a horse book, or are horse books, a mini-genre themselves, too simplistic?

What do you think?


Christina Wilsdon said...

Interesting post, and one that resonates with me as it sounds as if we grew up in the same era and butted up against the same "deceptive" horse book phenomenon! And it repeated itself when my own daughter turned into a horse-crazy girl a few years ago.

I remember one horse book (not the name but the premise) that I read back in the day that was a nasty slapdown of horse-crazy girls, very sneaky--in brief, horse-crazy girl has adventures with horses up til nearly the end, when she finds them pointless if not used for utility purposes and, as soon as she forsakes her obsession with horses, gets elected student-council president and wins friends. I was a great respecter of books, but I recall flinging this one across the room.

My hometown library helpfully appended horse-head stickers to the spines of true horse books, however, so usually I was able to pluck just the right books off the shelves :)

"National Velvet" and "Flicka" didn't disappoint me, though, because even though they were not "just" horse stories, per se, the horses' personalities were delineated nicely and they were real horses--also the human protagonists were very real, with flaws and credits, features I could identify with and others that make me anxious. This I find true all over again as I read these aloud to my daughter (she is quite old enough to read them on her own but we still enjoy the odd story time together). She appreciates the depth of the characters and stories despite the horses being something of minor characters in them.

But she did not like, for example, the Thoroughbred series. Too much boy-crazy stuff and not enough horse, in her and my opinion.

I asked her once what made a good "horse book" and she felt it was one in which the horses mattered for something and were not just "modes of transportation" or pretty things put in a story that was really just a typical story about girl conflict or romances or morality lessons, stories in which the animal might as well have been a llama or a guinea pig.

(Argh, the Red Pony...I read that one at too young an age and was sickened, so very upset...especially, actually, when the boy killed a bird...I was going to write to John Steinbeck and give him a piece of my mind...until I'd learned he had long since expired!)

Sarah said...

I like your daughter's definition! Maybe that's the element I was missing earlier - that even if a book is a legit novel and a character study (ex: National Velvet) rather than a girl-meets-horse tale (ex: Dorothy Lyons' books), there is a similarity in that the horse in both types of books is an actor. He/she isn't a backdrop or a prop.

AC said...

Excellent question. I second everything Christina says, right down to the casual violence against animals in general in The Red Pony.

I'd put the Flicka books and National Velvet both into the category of horse books that really aren't. They're about people, and horses happen to be a primary feature of the world in which they operate. But in both cases, that world is so well written and described with such love and detail that it almost doesn't matter. The horse content is incidental to the true theme, but it's still real enough to be satisfying.

Sarah said...

I've just started re-reading Thunderhead, the sequel to My Friend Flicka, and the book is so rich and so far from being a typical horse story - the perspective changes constantly, a huge part of the book is about the finances and the marriage of Ken's parents - and yet, it keeps coming back to the horses - Flicka; Banner, the ranch's stallion; Goblin, the albino throwback; and his grandsire, the wild white mustang.