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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Hoofbeats on the Page
When I was a young girl, I devoured books about horses. Black Beauty may have been the first – how better to draw in the reader than a story told in the voice of the creature himself? Sewall’s novel led me to Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague and King of the Wind, Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet and Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion. But my hunger for horse stories proved insatiable and hardly relegated to the classics; on my knees before the bookshelf at the school library, I hunted down middle-grade paperbacks, preferring stories of girls who rescued mustangs and mucked out stables in exchange for riding a neighbor’s horse to Velvet Brown training to become a steeplechase jockey. On my birthday and at Christmas, I tore open wrapping paper and gleefully exclaimed over the latest installments of The Saddle Club series; in the cafeteria I would secretly look down my nose at the preponderance of my girlhood peers, their dog-eared copies of The Babysitter’s Club in hand. Who wants to read about babysitting and boys, I thought, when you could be reading about horses?
What was it about horse stories that appealed? Certainly not all budding bibliophiles become enraptured by the genre; my younger sister, also a voracious reader, consistently chose books with animals—The Wind in the Willows, Watership Down, the Redwall series. Yet never can I recall her immersed in a “pony book,” which first began to appear in the 1920s, and largely in Britain. While animals abound in children’s literature, the novels about horses and young people somehow occupy their own territory, one that speaks to a particular yearning, perhaps even a worldview. How does the impact of such stories linger, especially when that young, engrossed reader grows up to become a writer?
Curled up on the couch, the dismal grey skies of Pennsylvania winter greeting my glance every time I looked up from the page, horse stories offered exoticism and escape. A boy and a sleek, wild stallion shipwrecked on a deserted beach, on the far side of the world, where the boy earns the horse’s trust and rides along the crashing waves remains The Black Stallion’s most striking, iconic scene, both in the book and the film adaption. Farley writes:
“His mane was like a crest, mounting, then falling low. His neck was long and slender, and arched to the small, savagely beautiful head. The head was that of the wildest of all wild creatures—a stallion born wild—and it was beautiful, savage, splendid. A stallion with a wonderful physical perfection that matched his savage, ruthless spirit.”
Despite the overzealous prose, the story is memorable and moving. As a young reader, stuck within the confines of a school and home life relegated by adults, in a rural area, The Black Stallion, King of the Wind and similar fictions provided a taste of freedom—not just the physical freedom of being able to imagine oneself galloping away on a powerful, newly-tamed creature, but of the promise of adventure in faraway and unknown places.
King of the Wind, Marguerite Henry’s Newberry awarding-winning book of 1949, is perhaps a superior read to Farley’s novel, with the additional intrigue of being based on a true story—that of the Goldophin Arabian believed to be the ancestor to the modern Thoroughbred. Agba, the Moroccan stable boy who accompanies the horse to Europe after the Sultan chooses six of his best mounts as a gift to the French king, proves a compelling, relatable character, his struggles to shepherd the horse in the foreign lands of Europe a conflict grounded in gritty reality. Agba’s situation contrasts greatly to that of The Black Stallion’s American city boy, Alec, having the good fortune to get flung onto a pristine tropical beach with a gorgeous horse he is then able to adopt and train for the racetrack. Both are stories of exoticism and escape, but the stakes are higher for King of the Wind’s Agba, for the Sultan has ordered the stable boys to remain with their horses until death. His fight to protect the animal as it is bought, sold, and at times, cruelly treated not unlike Black Beauty, allows his character the opportunity for greater agency and growth.
Racing and rescue are prevalent themes in horse stories, albeit with variations. In Misty of Chincoteague, in which a Virginia family sets out to raise a filly born to a wild pony from Assateague Island, the boy Paul rescues the newborn foal as it struggles to swim the channel at the annual round-up. I favored the premises where the horse’s well-being triumphed over the rider’s, stable boy’s, or owner’s, no matter how heartbreaking. Such were the plots of the countless mass-market paperbacks I consumed, produced in the 1980s, their titles now long forgotten. But I can recall with poignancy the tears I shed over them—scenarios where the young protagonist, hungry for a horse of his or her own, temporarily succeeds in befriending the mustang or spending enough hours in the ring to win the trophy instead of the snobby country club girl, but inevitably must give up the horse, either to another caretaker or to the wild. These stories rang irrevocably true, for by middle school one is already learning how resolutions are bittersweet at best, and what is right—a lesson mastered, a fellow creature’s happiness—often requires giving up what one has so longed for. By letting go of the horse, the young protagonist gains her freedom too.
What may have resonated most is the concept of agency—characters actively seeking out the object of their yearning, coupled with the emotional complexity which arises in bonding and working with an animal, and the greater issues that subsequently come to light about how we live, whether it be among animals or people. In Black Beauty, the bestselling 1877 novel by the British author Anna Sewall, the equine narrator recounts his lofty beginnings as a carriage horse, until his knees give out and he must toil in the streets of London, pulling cabs. While considered the forerunner of the “pony book” genre which reached its heyday in the children’s literature of the 1920s and 30s—National Velvet stands out as the most famous of this era—Sewall originally intended her novel for an adult audience. She writes,
“Do you know why this world is as bad as it is?… It is because people think only about their own business, and won’t trouble themselves to stand up for the oppressed, nor bring the wrong-doers to light… My doctrine is this, that if we see cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop, and do nothing, we make ourselves sharers in the guilt.”
With the exception of The Saddle Club series published by Bantam Books throughout the 1990s, the “pony book” genre has lost its standing in literature for young readers of today, enamored as they are with Harry Potter, dystopias, and the paranormal. When I finally moved on from the craze, I did so partly because The Saddle Club ultimately didn’t address the deeper moral issues that Black Beauty did; disenchanted, I came to realize the series equated to The Babysitter’s Club with riding lessons and boys thrown in. I don’t write horse stories now, and seldom do I get the opportunity to ride. But horses and the role they play in our imagination will always be with us, as evident in the recent popularity of War Horse and Seabiscuit.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that I write this from Ledig House, a writers’ residency nestled in the seamless pastures of the Hudson Valley. Thoroughbred farms dot the surrounding landscape. In the golden afternoons, I take walks with the other residents, the autumn light falling over the backs of the majestic creatures as they graze. I ponder my current fiction projects, rife with trials about social justice, often set in foreign locales, and consider to what extent the anguish of Black Beauty and exoticism of King of the Wind might have influenced my fixations. Another resident and I talk about going riding one day; I think we will. There’s so much to explore about one another, this world and our place in it, from the proximity of a horse.
Vanessa Blakeslee‘s debut short story collection, Train Shots, is forthcoming from Burrow Press in winter 2014. Her writing has appeared in The Southern Review, Green Mountains Review, The Paris Review Daily, The Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, among many others. Winner of the inaugural Bosque Fiction Prize, she has also been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, The Banff Centre, Ledig House, the Ragdale Foundation, and in 2013 received the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs.