Horses? check. Hard-luck struggles and heartbreak? check. Scary horse race? Definitely there.
Just a pause for a bit of background for those who haven’t read the book: Siena is basically seventeen neighborhoods in search of a city, and tends to be a bit more demonstrative in its contentions between factions than the coolly Anglo parts of the United States. Every year, the city holds two Palios1 in which ten of the seventeen contradas enter a horse–the “track” is too narrowly angular for seventeen horses to run safely at the same time and even then the ten entrants often do crash anyway. Unlike the calmer events held at Ascot and Churchill Downs, there are no groomed turf or dirt tracks, no smooth curves or rounded railings in the Palio’s course: the horses go charging through what are basically the cobbled streets of a medieval city. Another excitement (at least according to Marguerite Henry) is that unlike English and American flat racing today, where the winning horse and rider must cross the finish line in approximately the same configuration as the one in which they began the race in order to win, in the Palio it is the first horse to cross the finish line which wins for its contrada. Whether or not the rider also crosses the finish line, either in conjunction with his mount or under his own power, has no bearing on which contrada wins the race.
Giorgio is the son of a poor farmer in the Maremma, a poor (both financially and culturally) part of Italy known more for its swamps and its rednecks than its pasta and artwork. Babbo works his farm in hopes of paying off the mortgage years in the future, Mamma stays home caring for the younger children and cooking what she can with the little money the family has–a real treat for the family is rubbing slices of homemade bread against the cured sausage for flavoring as the meat must be saved for supper. Even at twelve, Giorgio has a gift for horses: he woos an overburdened underfed donkey into trotting merrily along to market with only a pocketful of grain, a bit of padding and a lot of kindness, and the blind mare Bianca trusts him as she does no one else, going surefooted for him and him alone.
After hearing of the Palio of Siena–part race, part reenactment of past battles–Giorgio dreams only of riding in that race. He begins by racing the other boys on countrybred hacks, then attracts the notice of Ramalli, a Sienese man who hires Giorgio to ride Ramalli’s horses in provincial races. Giorgio’s skill prompts Ramalli to bring him to Siena, the better to train his horses full time. The dream of the Palio proves elusive; Giorgio is small and delicate, ideal for a jockey now in America perhaps but at the time, earns him only mockery as the larger stronger tougher jockeys are preferred for the wilder Palio. Eventually, he gains both the dream of riding in the Palio and the love of a racehorse, the titular Gaudenzia. The heartbreak comes when he must ride against his beloved Gaudenzia in the climactic race; her jockey falls off going around the nastiest of the curves leaving Giorgio the option of losing, for Gaudenzia is faster than his own mount, or disqualify her by knocking off her spennacheria, an emblem fixed on her forehead. He attempts the latter, but fails.
While Born to Trot had some of the same elements, largely heartbreak and training horses for racing, Gaudenzia is distinctly different: it’s set in Italy in the 1950s, alien territory for a lot of American kids at the time (I think?). Poverty-stricken rural areas and urbane cities are nothing new, but Henry works in a considerable amount of the foreign flavor of the country–quite literally in many scenes, as Giorgio, a teenaged boy, eats his way through a number of Italian meals the likes of which probably wouldn’t have been familiar to a lot of American kids in 1960. Not entirely foreign–the United States has a large Italian population–but as strange to most kids at the time as sushi or stirfry would have been.
I’ll admit that, as an adult, this is one of my favorite Marguerite Henry books. There are others which may be better known, such as King of the Wind and Justin Morgan Had a Horse, but this shares with Misty of Chincoteague (and a couple of her other books) the advantage of the author meeting the primary players themselves: the jockey/trainer Giorgio and his family, the contrada members and ‘barbero’ owners, and most important of all (especially if you’re a little girl who adores horsies), Gaudenzia herself. The Palio of Siena (there are others throughout Italy) is thrillingly terrifying to read about–ten horses go charging around the central Piazza in Sienna with nothing more than a few mattresses stuck on the pointy parts and their own agility to protect them from accidents. None of this soft groomed turf and smooth railings.
On the down side, the characters all seem to be speaking in stilted English. I understand that Henry would write in English–that is, after all, her own native language and that of many of her presumed readers. I also understand that she would want to indicate in some way that the characters are not speaking English…but the characters in White Horse of Lipizza don’t read like they’ve stepped straight out of a bad World War II propaganda film, and although there is a difference between the Moroccans, the French and the English in King of the Wind, the dialogue seems to flow more smoothly.
1prior to 1716, or thereabouts, there was only one with occasional extra celebratory races.