Thursday, July 7, 2011

Horse Show Hurdles (1957)

Horse Show Hurdles
Joan Houston, il. Paul Brown1957, Thomas Y. Crowell Company  

A June wind, blowing down from the Vermont hills, parted Tam's dark bangs and flattened her shirt against her thin arms and chest. Her mouth was open a little, and her thick brows were pulled down in a frown of concentration as she pressed her heels against Bobolink's sides, urging the sorrel horse to a faster and showier trot.

13-year-old Tam Wade is finally back in the country at her uncle Pete's farm after the winter of New York City and school. Her favorite haunt is the Wilby Stable, but this year, it's under threat. A newer, flashier establishment is luring away customers. Tam is loyal, but Frank Wilby, the forthright old horseman who owns the barn, is his own worst enemy. Sure, LeRoy's stable is competition, but Frank's bad temper when faced with the sleazy LeRoy is the bigger problem.  

"What do I care where you ride?" Frank's jaw was set dangerously. "It's no business of mine." He gave a kind of growl in his throat, rather like a dog when it is angry, and strode off to the barn.

Loyal despite Frank's tantrums, Tam spends the summer working hard to save the barn with the help of stableboy Steven and her fickle sister Cynthia. Also in the mix is LeRoy's new instructor, the glamorous French dressage master Captain Boudreau, and Frank's sister Miss Wilby. Tam's easy, youthful dismissal of the latter shows she's not quite the free-thinking young tomboy she pretends to be, but she gets a sharp surprise late in the day. The rivalry between the barns builds all summer, culminating in a near-tragedy at the local horse show.

The book's good points include generous illustrations by Paul Brown, a strong plot and some nuanced characters. On the minus side, the action drags in the middle, and the villain is flat. Although the author's treatment of the inevitable 'emotional growth' aspect of the heroine's story is subtler and most effective than most, it's also a bit clumsily done. One oddity is how the barns are presented - while LeRoy is clearly a sleaze, Frank Wilby is an angry crank whose instruction apparently isn't up to much. The emphasis is all on loyalty, with little interest in our heroine as to how best to advance her riding. When her sister Cynthia, under the sway of a snobby, image-obsessed pal, defects to the rival barn, Tam's incensed.

A good, brisk read which lacks something. Perhaps it's that Tam, for all she loves horses and her own adored Merlin, is usually more caught up in arguing with her sister or scheming against LeRoy than actually riding.

Bobolink - sorrel gelding
Pinwheel - chestnut mare
Merlin - black gelding
Firefly - filly
Riot - Irish Terrier (dog)

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