The Grey Horse by R.A. MacAvoy

It’s a typical day in Carraroe: grey, soggy, and windy…but green. Anrai O Reachtaire1 is walking back from delivering back to its owner a horse he’s trained. A bit out of puff—he’s no spring chicken—he pauses to investigate an unfamiliar grey horse, standing loose up atop a rocky outcrop. Despite the horse’s lack of any tack or gear, Anrai ends up attempting to ride the creature, though it turns out that the horse is in fact the one with an agenda.

He’s a puca, in this case one which takes the form of a grey horse, and he’s fallen in love with the daughter of the local shipping magnate, herself no kin to the magnate but rather half fay as a result of her mother’s misguided love affair. In proper mythological style, Ruari give Anrai the ride of his life, tricky but without real malice, and delivers him safely to the doorstep where Anrai’s wife, Aine, has been keeping the pig’s trotters and mash warm on the back of the stove. Here, Ruari explains that he needs, not money or a job as such but rather the umbrella of Anrai’s respectability in order to persuade the object of his desire that he is a worthy husband of her.

This first thread of the book follows this puca as he establishes himself in the human society and woos his Lady Love, but given the time and place, it should come as no surprise to readers that there’s a considerable political (for the sake of brevity) subcurrent. Ireland at the time was a land of absentee English landlords, many of whom rarely if ever set foot on their estates; the local laird, however, is one Blondell who pays at least lip service to the lands which produce his income, and indeed genuinely believes that he does have an affection for his tenants which is reciprocated3.

The primary story arc culminates with the steeplechase between the English rider and English Thoroughbred stallion, and the Irish rider and “of unspecified ancestry” stallion; at the race’s end, Anrai and the foolish English stallion have both killed themselves with the effort of the race. After tying up the threads more or less as one would expect (Maire and Ruari marry, Seosamh and Eibhlin get what they deserve…) we get an epilogue, set fifty-odd years later during World War II, with an agent of the Inland Revenue Service coming to track down the MacEibhir family as they have not paid their taxes for several years running. The investigation comes to naught, as so far as the agent can tell, the family (father, mother and three sons) have vanished without a trace; it is no fault of his own that perhaps “into thin air” might have been a better description…

If you prefer modern writing styles, or fantasies that involve medieval settings and lots of swords, this is not for you. If you like horses but think that a pleasant afternoon involves climbing aboard a pre-groomed pony for a pleasant trot around a pre-groomed trail, this is not for you. If you like gentle romance, but think that love is only for the young, and beautiful and fortunate…also not for you. (The English, human or equine, don’t come off terribly well either; they’re pretty much across the board foolish at best and at worst, neurasthenic, nervy, over-bred, and tending to bad habits thereby, such as cribbing and attempting to be friendly with the people whom they subjugated a generation or so before.)

If, however, you think that love ought to be for a lifetime, and that a proper afternoon with horses involves getting sodden, bog-spattered and coated with hair and sweat..definitely for you2. Keep in mind, however, that despite being a romance and a fairy story, this isn’t entirely a romantic tale. Set in the late nineteenth century, “decimated” is still a fairly accurate way to describe the land when the book is set. As with Tea With the Black Dragon, there is an elderly couple, for whom love still blooms despite their hardships, but here there is considerably more political subtext here than in MacAvoy’s previous books. The population is still noticeably reduced from the starvation and emigration resulting from the potato blight, and anti-English feeling is running high, to say the least, among the locals. There’s a fair bit of sub-plot involving the political machinations of the local populace.

Ultimately, I suspect that this will be no more than mildly entertaining “beach and bathtub” reading for a good many people, but it may prompt a few readers to delve deeper into Irish mythology than Riverdance or deeper into its history than “The Troubles”. If you liked MacAvoy’s writing style, start with Tea With the Black Dragon or her Damiano trilogy.

1I apologize: I’m going to butcher the spelling…
2Certainly I appreciate horses that are allowed to behave like horses. None of this “Noble Beast” stuff. They sweat. They snort. They have neuroses. And so on.
3Stop laughing. I’m sure the white landlords thought the same of their sharecroppers in the United States.

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo

Told largely from the perspective of one of the horses serving in the British Cavalry in World War I, this might be an interesting glimpse into a period of time fast vanishing for kids who like stories told from the animals’ perspective.

Joey is a red bay Thoroughbred-Irish Draught cross, purchased by a farmer in rural England to work his fields along with his aging mare, Zoey. The father is alcoholic, and in his cups will abuse both horses, but the son, Albert, takes over the care of both as he matures and proves a good friend to Joey. The two ride the countryside together to tend the family’s livestock and plough the fields together…but when World War I breaks out, Joey is conscripted (if that word may be used for animals) while Albert is still too young to enlist himself.

Neither Joey or Albert forget one another, though Joey’s experiences on the front between the British and the Germans would cause even the cleverest of human to seek oblivion. Joey’s officer is shot from his back leaving him batted about between survivors–some better horsemen than others though all at least try to care for the horse. The friendship between Joey and another horse, Topthorn, proves a comfort to both. The humans, both British and German, recognize that bond and keep the two together as much is possible until Topthorn’s death; the combination of the strain of hauling artillery through the morass of the trenches and the inadequate feed does him in.

Joey stands over his companion’s body until, thrown into a panic by the approach of a tank, he flees across no man’s land reaching the British lines as dawn breaks, though badly injured by the rolls of barbed wire. It is here that Albert and Joey are reunited, though a bad case of tetanus and the forced auction of the army horses at the end of the war leave that in doubt. The foreshadowing prologue does give a hint of how the book ends, though I’ll stop here just to tease readers into actually getting the book.

In many ways, World War I proved a watershed in terms of cavalry in warfare; forward-thinking military tacticians realized that cavalry’s usefulness would decline rapidly as the war progressed but the more entrenched officers insisted that the mounted forces remained. Horses retained some limited usefulness as a result of their ability to move through mud deeper than even modern motorized vehicles can manage. However, modern innovations such as tanks and machine guns, combined with the tactics of trench warfare, rendered them cruelly archaic in the European theater; the charge was rendered ineffective by the increased range and accuracy of artillery and rifles, and the trenches and barbed wire barriers hampered the horses’ movement beyond even what hock-deep mud might do.

War Horse is a simple enough story, with just enough description of battles to give a clear idea of the war but without any omniscience as to the human motivations; Morpurgo does not break (much) from what a horse might see or understand, with the exception of allowing Joey to understand human speech. Joey is considerably anthropomorphized, however, and there were a few gaffes, such as “I turned to Topthorn who was already up on his toes ready for the trot that we knew was to come.” (Horses haven’t really got toes in the sense that Morpurgo’s using it here. Anatomically, their feet are the equivalent of human fingertips and toes; hence, they’re already on tippytoes. But that’s nitpicking.)

Kids who’ve seen the movie based on the book may want to read this, as might teachers assign it when their classes are covering World War I. War Horse isn’t nearly as gooey as Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty; the horses do not converse with one another, and much of the Victorian moralizing about treatment is removed–Morpurgo shows rather than tells the horror of the horses’ lives in war.

The Quarry Line Mystery by A.C. Stewart

As the book begins, eleven-year-old Bill Parks has saved up his pocket money to take a train ride into ‘the city’1 (playing hooky from school) to catch a film. Life has been unpleasant at home since he failed his “exams”2, not to mention finding life in a small town as the son of a truck driver somewhat stultifying. Upon his attempted return, he just misses the local train by moments, as he hadn’t bothered to check the current schedule, and impulsively catches the next train going in the right direction…which is the express. Which doesn’t stop at his station. In the course of attempting to correct his mistake, he only gets further lost–he sneaks onto a freight train, not thinking how he’ll get off same when it passes his station, and gets carried out in the countryside on a rail spur that ought not to be in use on a freight carrying things it ought not to be carrying.

He dives off at what looks to be a convenient point, tumbles down the bank and finds his way to the nearest road, where fortuitously, one of the other lorry drivers with whom his dad works just happens to be driving by, spots him and backtracks to pick him up and take him home. Rhys takes Bill home to Bill’s parents, their fuming about the exams set aside as they worry where their boy’s gone.

Amid all the other turmoils in Bill’s life–his education in the short term, his economic potentials in the long term, his mum getting a job then moving out after she has a row with Bill and her husband about finances, and the annoying girl upstairs who did pass her eleven-plus despite being from a poorer background than Bill–he becomes fascinated by the mysterious freight train. Bill’s familiar with all the trains that pass through his town, both passengers and freights, and this one is perplexing. He determines to find out not only where the train was going, but whether it has anything to do with the fertilizer and horse feed that’s been going missing recently. He does discover that, after a bad few moments both prior and subsequent to unraveling the mystery. I’m going to leave the plot description there, except to say that we shouldn’t judge people merely by appearance: the engineer who appears to be hot-tempered and swift to use his fists on humans proves to be a soft touch for animals, and has adopted several mistreated animals, without the knowledge of or permission from their owners.

This is another of the books I found at a local book-oriented yard sale this summer, and found interesting to read. I think it’s intended to be a thriller for middle grade students, though the separation of decades and an ocean might make this slightly perplexing for American kids today. (Can’t really speak to what British kids in the appropriate age/reading range at the time of the book’s publication thought of it.) As with Second-Hand Family, I suspect this might be as much a nostalgic trip down Memory Lane for adults who’d been in the intended age range when the book first came out as it would be for kids today in that age.

Just as an example of the sort of problems American kids today might have: if I’ve interpreted the book correctly, these are the Eleven Plus exams, as Bill reflects that he’s somewhat relieved that he won’t have to go to the grammar school with all the academically clever children, but rather can go to the secondary modern school, where he’ll be able to work with his hands rather than his head (i.e. get something closer to vocational training rather than college prep courses)
It’s an interesting glimpse into a time not too terribly long ago about a working class boy in England. It’s not much of a mystery and the plot’s a bit perplexing–I had to read it three times before managing to summarize the book–but might be interesting for kids who’re interested in trains. While the animal mistreatment is a significant sub-plot, it’s almost a MacGuffin: the trains play a much larger part in the book as a whole. Overall, I’d call it a combination of period piece and mainstream description of working-class life in the late ’60s and early ’70s in England3.

Kirkus Review

1Stewart doesn’t specify which one
2I’m guessing the Eleven Plus. More on this later in the post…
3don’t get pissy now, if you’re from the U.K. So far as I can tell, it’s in England, close to Wales

Mustang by Marguerite Henry

Mustangs have always been part of Annie Bronn’s life and heritage. Her father, as an infant, survived his family’s move to Nevada only because one of their team had just had a colt; the mare’s milk supported not only her own offspring, but the human child as well. As an adult, her father ran a freighting business, using mustang teams to haul over the mountains. As a child, Bronn loved horses and worked with them doing tasks usually reserved for older hands, as the horses trusted her. As a tween, suffering through not only the after effects of polio, but the limited treatments of the early 1920s, a painting of mustangs sustained her emotionally.

The belief that others respected the animals as she did evaporated one day when, driving to work, she pulled onto the road behind a truck carrying injured horses to the slaughterhouse to be used for animal feed1. She worked to expose this to the public, feeling (rightly as it turned out) that while there were a great many people in favor of this, many more would be as outraged as she. After a great deal of networking, information gathering and public speaking work on Bronn’s part (and legislators in Nevada) pushed a bill through the state legislature to protect mustangs from hunting procedures involving air pursuit in conjunction with trucks on the ground, on state-owned land in Nevada.

The catch? Eighty-six percent of land in Nevada at the time was federal land. Bronn continued campaigning, and in 1959, the “Wild Horse Annie” Act (P.L. 86-234) prohibited pursuit by motorized vehicles and poisoning water supplies. Her struggle continued through the 1960s, until the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act (P.L. 92-195) passed in 1971; the establishment of refuges on federal land helped a great deal. This still required vigilance on the part of the organizations which she founded and others with which she worked to enforce the new laws; there is to this day a great deal of land in the Western United States which is uninhabited by people, and in the Fifties and Sixties, the issue of how to enforce these laws over areas with little access by road was a concern, to say the least.

The book is somewhat telescoped, in order to make for better reading: while the events are all very true, they were spread out over a greater number of years than they appeared to take in the novel. While in reality, it makes a great deal of sense for Henry to tweak events to make for better reading–there’s a reason why her works are always in the fiction section of the library along with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books–I’ll confess to being a trifle crestfallen. I’ll just have to remind myself that what Johnston did is still important: she fought for legislation to protect mustangs from inhumane hunting techniques. “Dumb” animals they may be, but horses can still feel fear and pain. Apparently, the fight continued, both in Nevada and outside of it, after Mustang was published in 1966.

Allison’s review
Biography of “Wild Horse Annie”

1no, the purpose for which they were used isn’t the horrifying part. Unless you’re a vegan, get over it.

The Squire’s Tale by Gerald Morris

Terence, an orphan being raised by the hermit Trevisant, is out working his snare lines one day, when he comes across a man with three large horses (two of which are pack horses), a suit of armor, a sword and lance…and one of the rabbits from Terence’s trapline. All day Terence has been beset by mysterious tricks–a branch that slithers away like a snake, a squirrel that sings like a nightingale and everywhere a snickering little green man who pops up and vanishes away like a will-o-the-wisp. He is disinclined to be polite when he realizes the source of the large red-headed man’s rabbit dinner, but reluctantly invites him home to Trevisant’s hut for supper.

Like T.H. White’s Merlin in The Sword in the Stone, Trevisant sees time backwards, remembering the future and awaiting the past–and he has already packed Terence’s possessions, expecting him to ride away with this strange man to be his squire. Even when informed that this is Gawain, heading off to Camelot, Terence is dubious until Trevisant reassures him that it will prove both profitable and educational, and besides, is meant to be; he should know, as his past is Terence’s future.

The pair’s introduction at court is cut short at first by bagatelles such as the advent of the Army of Five Kings, who wish to take issue with this upstart bastard son of Uther, and Arthur’s marriage to Guenevere. The Five Kings’ conceit is ended by Terence’s theft of their Ring of Kingship–only he who holds this ring may rightly rule England or some such–with the aid of the green trickster whom he met in the beginning, though the Matter of Guenevere must wait until book two. The main plot device begins with a white hart bolting through the main hall, hotly pursued by a white hound. This mystery is only deepened by the arrival of a hag (no particular color) arriving shortly thereafter, who challenges the knights present at the banquet to follow the hart and the hound. Gawain is among the knights compelled to take up the…er…lady’s challenge, and with him, Terence; the two travel in pursuit of the hart and/or hound, but despite finding the two fairly early on in their travels, they continue on through the “England” of the time rescuing the usual quota of maidens from evil knights, brave knights from evil ladies (or not, as the situation requires). In the course of their travels, Gawain begins to learn humility–skilled though he may be, there will always be something to learn and eventually a more skilled knight–but perhaps more importantly for the series, Terence begins to learn something of his own heritage…and it’s not entirely human.

This is an amusing mashup of several medieval stories. For the most part, it centers around Arthur and Camelot, but also the variants on the “give the hag her choice when she asks whether you’d prefer her ugly or beautiful” trope which Chaucer retells in the Wife of Bath’s Tale, and the tales involving the differences in time flow between the mortal world and that of Faery. It’s a kids’ book, and while no one can compare to Lloyd Alexander and his Prydain, Gerald Morris’s books are well worth reading for themselves. The fact that they also can provide an overview of medieval and Middle English literature is an added bonus; subsequent books touch on (surprise, surprise) Sir Gawain and The Green Knight and other oft-studied works from College English 101. The characterization is nowhere near White’s “The Once and Future King”, but hopefully will serve as an engaging introduction to the literature and the period; Gawain, Arthur and Guenevere are here as human, though not as detailed, as they are in White’s work. Though they are not central characters in the stories, Morris does touch on why Guenevere would consider Lancelot over Arthur.

Born to Trot by Marguerite Henry

Gib White is the son of Ben White, famous in the 1940s and 1950s as a driver of trotting Standardbreds, skilled enough to win the Hambletonian four times, and countless lesser races. Not surprisingly, Gib has grown up around harness racetracks, dreaming only of following in his father’s footsteps. The book begins with Gib, as a young teenaged boy, morosely jogging his (non-Standardbred) pony Tony around the track as the adult drivers breeze their horses the other way, in training for the real races that Gib can only dream about. The drivers tease him affectionately, but lay off when they realize how deeply upset Gib is by this. That day, Ben tells his son that he may come along with his father on the Grand Circuit–the summer’s harness racing season–if he’ll only build himself up after a physically stressful period of training in various sports the previous school year.

Unfortunately, not only does Gib not pick up, but rather his cough worsens and he continues to lose weight; partway through the season, Ben takes Gib to a nearby medical clinic, where Gib is diagnosed with an unspecified illness which requires him to remain in bed in a hospital while he recovers. In an attempt to revive Gib’s interest in life, flagging badly now that he is separated from his beloved harness racing world, Ben White deeds a new foal to his son: Rosalind, out of Alma Lee by Lee Worthy, about as purple a bloodline of royalty as any horse might hope for. Henry does not specify either Gib’s disease, though it was probably tuberculosis; although the book was published in 1950, Ben White won the Hambletonian with Rosalind in 1936, long prior to the advent of modern antibiotics used to treat and cure TB–at the time the story takes place, the only real treatment for TB was bed rest until the patient’s body walled off the infectious region of the lungs1. Nor does she specify the length of time he must spend in hospital, though it seems brief based on the implication it’s little longer than it would take Gib to read a book about Standardbreds (spread out between his schoolwork and rest periods) but based on the length of time between a Standardbred’s birth and its beginning to establish itself in the racing world, Gib must have had to stay for nearly three years.

Rosalind lives up to her heritage, aided considerably by Ben’s training skill, and Gib does indeed pick up with the distraction of planning the training of his own beloved horse while he is in the hospital and the incentive of racing his own horse upon his release. He follows her training, even as he wades through the tedious mounds of In the end, he relinquishes his chance to drive the horse he owns to the man she has known all her life–his father–and instead announces Rosalind’s race over the radio.

As a librarian and someone who’s read rather a lot of books, I appreciate how Henry does not always allow her characters the cliched happy endings: Agba never races Sham, Giorgio Tierni does not always get to ride his beloved Gaudenzia, and here Gib does what he believes to be best for Rosalind, realizing that she will perform far better for the driver that she knows and loves than she ever would for him, a stranger to her despite all the communication about her which flowed between father and son over the months and years. What do horses know of letter-writing? The time since the book’s writing means the literary style has changed enough that it will probably seem a bit strange to kids in the intended age range today. Still plenty of little girls (and more than a few boys) who are horse mad enough for this to appeal based simply on the subject matter. It’s also interesting for the information about harness racing, which (forgive the pun, horse lovers) tends to be somewhat Eclipsed by the more dramatic Thoroughbred racing–Standardbreds, being a sturdier and more sensible horse breed, tend not to have Teh Emo Dramatix out on the track, nor do they have such spectacular accidents.

1something like that, anyway. I’m not a doctor nor do I have medical training but only have read several biographies and works of fiction about people with TB

Gaudenzia, Pride of the Palio by Marguerite Henry

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.