Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A "Blue" For Illi (1954)

A Blue For Illi (aka Blue Ribbon Winner)
Nancy Hartwell, il. Don Sibley
1954, Henry Holt and Company

This was the spot where Illi liked to linger when the horses were out.  She would stand, one foot on the rail, watching the sleek brown or gray or black bodies stretch and arch themselves in the most beautiful curves in the world.  Was there anything more beautiful than a horse in action?  Was there a better friend anywhere than a horse?

Ilona Horvath is standing in the lushness of Philadelphia's furthest suburbs, the gently rolling countryside of Chester County.  Walking down a country lane past a sprawling gentleman's farm, on her way to the snug home of her second family, the Enrights, Illi's come a strange, hard distance from her birth in Budapest.  The daughter of an artist and a lawyer, Illi had a happy childhood and even when she was evacuated from the city in 1943, she continued briefly to enjoy a snug middle-class existence at the government horse farm (the real Kisber Stud, which bred Thoroughbreds) her grandfather manages first for the Hungarians and then for the invading Germans.  But by 1945, the 10-year-old's childhood is effectively over.  Her parents, opposed to the invading Germans, have been arrested and killed, her grandfather dies protecting her from a guard, her older brother's run off to join the guerrillas, and even her beloved young stallion Vidam must be left behind.  As Illi expresses it herself in an essay, that was the end of the "well-bred little girl;" she "became one of the lost children of Europe who lived from day to day in the best way they could."  In her case, she fought her way to a Children's Camp for displaced people and managed to get herself sent to America, to be a companion for a middle-class couple's disabled daughter, Ardis.  She's been there a while now, and is happy enough, but still unsure of her future.

Whew.  To her credit, Hartwell presents all that information in a natural way and not in the action-packed paragraph format I just used. 

Back to the horses.  With the unerring instinct of many a less-challenged horsey heroine, Illi manages to attract admiration and help from the Major, one of those invaluable wealthy neighbors who own quality horses and has a soft spot for spunky girls.  Illi and falls in love with his horse Hocus-Pocus (aka Pokey), who reminds her painfully of the lost Vidam.

She was standing in the road, trying to get up her courage, when she heard the soft clop of hoofs and looked up the lane to see Neal coming along on Rockabye and leading another horse, a stud colt not more than two years old and tacked up for riding.  He was a perfect little chestnut with a white star on his forehead and dark, wide-set eyes, proudly arched neck, and four dainty white stockings. 
Illi stood rooted to the spot.  She must be dreaming, because it was exactly like the dream, the one that still came back to her, the one from which she always awoke with a feeling of keen disappointment.  It was the dream where she saw Vidam coming down from the Kisber stables, headed straight for her.

There are misunderstandings, romances for both Illi and Ardis, and a pair of reunions that are both unlikely and deeply believable.  The action culminates at the Devon Horse Show. 

The author is capable and stylish, and the heroine's complicated life is inherently interesting, but the action - and the various eligible boys - become confusing and the horse material is handled gingerly.  While the heroine's love for horses is well done, the actual riding scenes are few, far between and not exactly convincing.

Illustrations and Covers
Unfortunately, my copy is a battered old former library book without a dust jacket.  The original Holt hardcover cover can, for the moment at least, be seen at Amazon.  There was a Berkley Highland paperback edition in 1963, which can also be seen at Amazon.
The illustrator for the Holt originals was Don Sibley, who was a prolific illustrator of children's books, to the point where I knew I knew that name.  His horses are more like statues than living animals, but the minimalistic drawings throughout the book - often only on half a page - are typical of the time period, and nostalgically appealing. 

About the Author
Nancy Hartwell (1890-?) was a pseudonym for Claire Hartwell Callahan, who also wrote under the name Ann Kilborn Cole.  She wrote several young adult novels, but none of the others had an equine aspect.  She was born and raised in Philadelphia, attended Trinity College in Washington D.C., married in 1921and lived most of her adult life outside the city in the town of Pottstown. 

Other books by Author

Shoestring Theater (1947)
Dusty Cloak (1955)Senorita Okay (1956)
The Hills Of Home (1958)
Wake Up, Roberta (1959)
The Place On Wishbone Alley (1960)
Who Was Sylvia? (1960)
Something For Laurie (1962)

The Golden Guide to Antiques
Old Things For Young People