Sunday, October 30, 2011
Janet Lambert, il.
1951, E.P. Dutton & Company, Inc.
Dria's second evening at Lane Acres was unlike any she ever had spent. Due to a sudden summer rain, the whole family gathered in the parlors, and it was as if an electric wire had come loose and hung swinging in the middle of the room, with everyone skirting it, not knowing how dangerous it was. Great-Gran was the live wire that people warily avoided. Emily St. John sat on a green velvet love seat and looked at the contented old lady as if she would like to nip her off with a pair of pliers and carry her gingerly outside.
Alexandria "Dria" Meredith has been sent from her Indiana home to her great-grandmother's Virginia farm for the summer, as her parents Alexander and Elizabeth are going to the Mayo Clinic to cure her sick mother. Dria dreads the trip, as it means entering a simmering family feud that started yeas ago when her father walked away from the family factory to become a newspaperman. In residence at the farm near Lexington, Virginia, are Dria's great-grandmother Gran, her grandmother Mama, her aunt Emily, her cousin Camilla Lou, and a few employees, including the friendly handyman her own age, Chad. Dria quickly learns to adore her frail, outspoken Gran, but can't quite handle the other women of the family, whose existing loyalties and battles baffle her. She spends much of her time with Chad, learning to train the brown colt she names Star Dream.
The brown colt stood still with his little pointed ears up, his beautiful head lifted, his dainty unshod feet with their two white fore socks firmly planted. He looked like a bronze statue; and Dria knew he felt as she often had when she waited at an appointed place for her mother, watching pedestrians who were never the right person.
Dria impulsively begs her grandmother, who's selling off all her horses because she's broke, to keep the colt through the summer and let her train him, so he'll fetch a higher price. Gran, who's formed an instant fondness for Dria that rouses the ire of the rest of the household, indulgently agrees. The handyman, Tom, trains Dria to ride and teachers her how to train her colt. Dria has no worries about training, but finds riding a bit more frightening at first.
Sitting on Pokey was like sitting on a merry-go-round horse between rides, for she had no interest in the affair at all. She took a nap while Tom pushed Dria's blue jeaned thighs into the saddle, shoved down her heels and got her at a better angle. She even started off in slow motion. Dria had plenty of time to devote to herself; to watch her reins, keep her elbows in, her wrists flexed, her toes in, too, her back arched, shoulders relaxed, heels down, head up. The only trouble was, she had to do it with Tom walking and talking beside her, and he kept adding to her list before she had time to practice anything he said.
While I love the descriptions of Dria learning to ride - her first lesson passes "like a whole morning of spankings" - I'm ambivalent about the book. I've tried reading Lambert's books before - she wrote over 50, mostly teen novels - and been stymied by something elderly in their philosophy. Here, Dria nearly turns herself inside out with self-recrimination when she has a minor quarrel with her cousin, and several times all but begs her great-grandmother to sell Star Dream in order to keep family harmony. The argument between her father and his mother, a long-standing family feud that's obviously a clash between two strong-willed adults, is aggressively portrayed as being entirely the mother's fault; when peace comes, it comes because she capitulates. The female-only family Dria's grandmother has created - with her own mother, her daughter Emily and her grand-daughter Camilla Lou - is a failure, rife with acrimony and bitter scheming, while Alex's little family of wife Elizabeth and daughter Alexandria, is perfect. The mother is graciously invisible even in near-death from an illness that's never named (I assumed, based on the dying-while-fragile descriptions and some vague comments about her having surgery in the chest area, that it was either tuberculosis or cancer), and of course, little Alexandria is filled to the brim with energy and brightness, with the feminine grace of being wholly concerned with the welfare of others.
Other issues detract from the pleasure of the book. The POV is unsteady, jumping sometimes without warning from Dria, who is the usual narrator, to others and then back. Lambert clearly had a strong affection for the place - she lived in Lexington, and her fondness for it shows through - but she doesn't do much to describe the physical surroundings. Though, come to that, she also doesn't describe her characters much. This could be considered a good thing, as old teen novels have a weakness for awkward moments where the heroine's cunning hat or sparkling eyes are lovingly detailed, but it would be nice to have some idea of what anyone looks like.
The strengths? A strong major character (she's strong, just a little crazy when it comes to self-sacrifice), a forceful plot, and a convincing dilemma. Star Dream doesn't quite count as a horse book - despite the horsey content, it's just not really about the horses - but it's quite powerful as a teen novel. It handles the confusion of an extremely complicated mesh of family members (three with nearly identical names) to show a teenager grappling with family dynamics in a clan where the money and the power reside in different people.
The actual cover can be seen at Jane Badger Books (http://www.janebadgerbooks.co.uk/usa/lambert.html) or at Image Cascade
(http://www.imagecascade.com/dria-meredith-stories.html) which reprinted the books around 2000. My copy, acquired through interlibrary loan, is lacking a dust jacket. There is only one illustration, a black-and-white drawing on the title page which makes Dria look about 17 although I believe she's supposed to be about 14 in this book and behaves like an unusually serious-minded 11-year-old most of the time.
The Dria series
Star Dream (1951)
Summer For Seven (1952)
High Hurdles (1955)
Saturday, October 29, 2011
This is how late October is supposed to look in NJ - the leaves of a few trees, mostly the maples, flaming out suddenly, the rest starting to turn and fall. Coolness, a sudden chill in the morning. Realizing that the humid, oppressive jungle of summer insects and plant life is gone, that even the insects that are still around and the plants that are still thriving both look thinner, weaker. The earth and the water, covered for months in flowers and leaves and vines and ants and beetles, revealed again, heading back toward winter's stark mass.
Today's sleet, on the other hand, and nor'easter, are atypical and not altogether welcome. I love a rainy, sleepy Saturday more than the average person - I'd rather curl up inside and snooze when it rains, instead of thrashing my way back and forth to Philadelphia, and work. But sleet? Sleet? I was just adjusting to the end of summer, and winter is already here.
It doesn't seem to be bothering the birds much; they staged a protest out at the feeders, complaining that there was nothing there for them, until I relented and stuck my head out long enough to rip a day-old French bread apart and throw it out. A couple hours later, there was a flock plus a fat grey squirrel prospecting in the weeds for stray crumbs. Somewhere, the black cat who's convinced the feeder is actually being manned for his convenience is dreaming of the rain stopping and his paws wrapping around some bird's neck. A few feet from the computer, my dog is dreaming of finding the black cat and being his best friend. She loves cats but cats do not generally realize that her attempts to run right over to them are meant to be friendly.
Thanks to the joys of interlibrary loan, I've gotten my hands on two old horse books, Janet Lambert's Star Dream (1951) and High Hurdles (1955). I've been reading the first, which is very enjoyable but sometimes very odd. As in many older books, the female protagonist's age is difficult to discern; she is old enough to date (a little) and be aware of her parents' troubles, but her artlessness makes for an unconvincing teenager. And I still haven't recovered from the scene where she suddenly refers to the the Soviet Union's NKVD; coming midway through a book whose tone and setting are gently, vaguely prewar, the modern reference is yelp-inducing.
Draw With Same Savitt
I've acquired a few more books, notably Suzanne Wilding's The Book of Ponies, illustrated by Sam Savitt. The book herd is rapidly approaching critical mass, and as we're now rapidly approaching Christmas, I'm afraid the reckoning I've been postponing since July is also looming. Or I could just stick them all in the attic.
And now I need to go dig out some Halloween candy and have a little snack. Inspired by the frozen day, I spent two hours making a very bad chili for lunch (underspriced, over-tomatoed, generally a failure which might redeem itself in reheating) but now I have to tackle dinner. I would like to skip dinner and proceed directly to popcorn while watching the Lost Boys sequel, but that would probably be an unpopular decision with the rest of the household.