a trip in the wayback machine: Mary O’Hara’s Flicka trilogy


I loved My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead, and Green Grass of Wyoming when I was a tween, but then I’d read anything about horses then, even government issue pamphlets about hoof diseases or worming medication or some such dry unattractive stuff. Returning to them as an adult, I can spot reasons why they might not be all that great for a modern library.

When the trilogy begins, Ken Laughlin is a dreamy little boy on the verge of adolescence; he’d rather live in his daydreams than in his father’s reality and this propensity has led him to dream away a year’s worth of studies. When he returns home from boarding school1, he discovers that he is to repeat sixth grade unless he can write an essay necessary to complete his English class…and with it the ensuing school bills, to his father’s outrage. Rob is a very realistic, hardheaded man, having struggled all his life, and cannot understand Ken’s retreat into fantasy. The “horse” subplot centers on Ken’s desire for his very own horse–his older brother Howard got his horse two years ago and never misses a chance to rub this in–and eventually his father gives in, hoping that the work needed to train a horse in real life will snap Ken out of his perpetual reverie. This works, though not in quite the way that Rob expected: Ken picks a sorrel yearling, last of a wild strain introduced into the herd when Rob hoped that the speed inherent in this bloodline would produce a racehorse. Their intractability and intransigence rendered the lot of them preferring to buck and sunfish around in circles rather than speed fleetly around the track. This has a happy ending of sorts: Flicka does become docile but an accident with a barbed wire fence leaves her partially lame and therefore ruins her as a racehorse.

The second and third books center on Rob’s hopes for Flicka’s colts, Thunderhead and Touch and Go. Touch and Go proves the fleetest of fillies, and wins her share of races before being sold for a good price, but Thunderhead, who remains ungelded at Ken’s insistence, proves a throwback to his grandfather, the Albino: this is the horse that introduced the intractable but fleet strain into Rob’s herd. As Thunderhead ends, Ken turns his beloved Thunderhead loose in an isolated valley with a herd of mares; the humans hope that this will keep Thunderhead out of the way of Rob’s breeding mares. As Green Grass of Wyoming begins, Thunderhead has broken out of the valley after his mares die and roams the countryside stealing mares from surrounding farms. In the children’s subplot, Ken finds the love of his life (human) when her mare is lost from the train while being shipped out to Wyoming…and is (surprise surprise) stolen by Thunderhead. In the parents’, the ranch has financially moved into the black when Rob conceded that horses weren’t going to pay the bills and began raising sheep as well but Nell has developed hypothyroidism as a result of iodine deficiency.

Despite the trilogy’s reputation as being for children, I’m not sure they actually are. I don’t recall what O’Hara intended them to be, but although Ken is an adolescent, I hesitate recommend them for that age group now. it’s not inappropriate for the age group; there are a number of tweens and teens who’d be mature enough to read it. No, it’s more that it’s not the horse book many people believe it to be. The language is more than slightly complex, not to mention that the books are as much about the parents as they are the children. There’s a great deal of detail about Rob’s financial struggles with raising blood horses and the marriage difficulties between Rob and Nell. They are in no small degree based on Mary O’Hara’s experience on a horse ranch in Wyoming and so have a degree of realism that’s rare in the kids books I remember reading when I was a kid (but then I did tend to fantasy…)

1not quite the luxury it sounds; in rural Wyoming in the thirties, there were no schools whatsoever close enough to the ranch. Something like that anyway.

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