If never have you ever flipped open the cover of a new book –– or an old one, I'm not judging –– and taken an appreciative sniff, just keep scrolling.
Or give it a try. Page-sniffing is a thing.
I don't know how others turned into readers. The conversion interests me, seeming to divide the world into two groups (yeah, yeah, those who divide the world into groups and those who don't?). A hard binary system of readers and non-readers.
My sister is a reader. She wasn't for a while, and then in around fifth grade, she suddenly was.. I think it was a biography of Miss Harriet Tubman that swallowed her up during –– was it a car trip?
I want to remember the name of the paperback book Freedom Train, but I was a bystander, and this only my recollection. Did she read it over and over? I think she did.
So perhaps when I found a book that worked its wormy magic on me, I was only following her steps.
There I was, awake in a hospital bed, contemplating the small but disgusting remnants of my appendectomy, bored at age 8 as I had never imagined being bored.
It's a signifier of years under my keel that back then I spent 5 days recovering in the hospital. After the first dramatic 18 hours, the novelty of ginger ale, a nurse on call, limitless Jell-O, and four industrial-green walls wore off quickly.
Mrs. Horack, fourth-grade teacher and all-round civilizer of the savages we were, brought a small bouquet and a get-well package of cheerful messages from my erstwhile tormentors and classmates and –– oh joy! –– books from her latest Scholastic order.
A small stack of cheap paperbacks.
There was a Disney movie novelization called The Mystery in Dracula's Castle.
And one of Clifford D. Hicks' Alvin Fernard series –– Alvin Fernard's Secret Code perhaps?
A third that might have been another Disney novelization. I'm not sure. The Parent Trap with movie stills of Hayley Mills and Maureen O'Hara, maybe? Anyhow, forgettable fiction.
And...tahdah! Walter Farley's The Black Stallion.
The story of Alec, a boy who tames the heroic black stallion. While marooned on a desert isle. And who brings the wild creature home to Queens.
It surprises me a little that –– it appears –– nobody has based an academic dissertation on the works of Mr. Farley. The storytelling was like a barn fire: a smoulder for maybe the first sentence, followed by a five-alarm blaze for 18 chapters. Action! Horses! Danger! A Big Race!
The Black Stallion was published in 1941, the product of a college boy who knew and loved horses (it shows), which means it's had 80+ years to percolate through popular culture. The movie version, thank you Francis Ford Coppola and crew, is gorgeous.
I believe that JRR Tolkien produced the granddaddy of all modern fantasy novels in his Middle Earth (not that there weren't ancestors before then, but still –– not one Dragon, not one Dungeon, not one Song of Fire or Ice but which can trace its ancestry...) Anyhow, I likewise believe that The Black Stallion is, if not the first (hello, Anna Sewell's 1877 masterpiece, Black Beauty, not to mention Smokey the Cowhorse by Will James, which won the Newbery in 1928.) then it's the ideal exemplar of the horse-story.
The Black Stallion went on to sire a whole line of descendants. Not just look-alikes when kid meets horse, kid tames horse, horse and kid win big race, but Walter Farley wrote close to 20 sequels, and a son continues to produce new books in the series.
ANYHOW, I veer from me me me and my experience. The Black Stallion was the book that gave me my first immersive escape from physical surrounds. I dove into the dark and salty ocean with Alec and the Black while their tramp steamer foundered, forgetting about the discomfort an IV needle and the too-tight bedclothes, the scent of infection and Lysol, the hunger and weariness. It was magic.
The experience of reading and immediately re-reading the novel ––the pages of my copy are watermarked and foxed, scarred by tea and littered with petrified toast crumbs –– made me into a reader.
Of course I had pretty specialized taste at first. Researching for this blog sent me to a Pinterest page showing column after column of vintage horse-story books. So many old friends among those covers!
Horses and books, books and horses. Not all my book friends had horses, but a surprising number of friends know this two-pronged hayfork: Mumsie herself of course, and Cousin Shirley (Hiya!), the gang of Jill and Sheryl and Megan, plus Robyn, Jekki, Wendy, Arial, and more.
Decade after decade I crack open a book or swipe the Kindle awake, press the delta of "play" for an audiobook, absolutely certain that I'll be visiting a new world between the covers of one book or another. Right now there are two SF novels beside the bed, the latest Robert Galbraith/Cormoran Strike audiobook on the phone for Mr. Linton and me, and a handful of who knows what options on the Kindle. In fact, I should go update my Goodreads list.
Gentle readers, name the book that made you part of this strange clan. Or say what book you're reading now. Or which one bucked you off like rodeo bronc.
You know, talk bookly to me...
I visited Saratoga Springs as a 15-year-old on a 4-H trip of some stripe. I suppose it had to do with Horse Bowl or another equine-related activity. It was meant to be a treat, spending the day at this classic horse-racing center.
I don't remember how we got there, or why we were sitting in a dining room listening to some adult talk about something or another. For seemingly eternity.
But what I do remember, with vivid, visceral detail? The sensation of the tiny packet of catsup between my restless fingers. I flipped that packet between my fingers the way a magician moves a coin from knuckle to knuckle. It had a particular squeezy resistance to pressure when I flexed a fist.
And then it didn't.
A small packet of catsup, I have every recollection, can be propelled by hand to a distance of two banquet tables.
The teaspoon of tomato-based condiment can, demonstrably, touch base with at least five innocent bystanders. And for the remainder of that day in Saratoga Springs was divided into thirds: first third: horror and mortification. Second third: silent apology. Third third: suppressed hysteria.
I competed in a horse show at Skidmore College when I was in college. I don't remember anything about the horse I rode, or how I performed, but I can recall exactly the swoop and sway of the car on its way. The upperclassman driving us in his car talked to his audience of student sardines with liberal use of both hands, regardless the conditions of the road.
This time, the trip Saratoga Springs was just delightful.
A pleasant drive. The Saratoga Lake Yacht Club welcomed us with extraordinary warmness, our visit to the racetrack was unmarred by condiment incident, and we came home with the sailing equivalent of blue ribbons...
Who Doesn't Want a Pony?
For a couple of months when I was in fifth grade, one of the neighboring horses escaped its field. Even then, the neatly fenced landscape of small dairy farms was sliding away from cultivation. It was possible for a large hoofed mammal like a runaway horse to make itself scarce amidst the uncut brush. It set my imagination on fire.
* To break the rational universe, yes, the happiest of all combinations in the English language would be the impossible pairing of "free" + "ponies."
But don't be a fool, man, the space-time continuum can't bear the strain...
Lucky reader, we have NOT world enough or time. But as my skipper recently remarked, "You can take the girl away from the horses, but you can't take the horse out of the girl.
We were heading down to the river to do some paddling and fishing, four of us convoying our kayaks along a remote stretch of private dirt road when, like a big blue bird of happiness finally coming home to roost, abracadabra! A pony!
As someone in a dream, I fed my prize a nibble of apple and rubbed her ears. I whipped up a serviceable halter from the bow line of my sister's kayak and dropped it over the pony's head and commenced the long walk to the Would-Be Farm.
My fishing companions had a variety of reactions. The retired state cop, visibly relieved at someone taking action, drove off saying he'd phone in the missing pony.
My sister echoed my exclamations of "A PONY!" and took photos.
My sweet spouse suggested that I didn't need to move the animal anywhere. He left the second half of the sentence, "let alone bring it home" unspoken.
Do I need mention that it began to rain? Or that, once at the Would-Be Farm, the pony ate a snack of grits, drank a bucket of water, took a vigorous roll on the newly cut grass, and trotted off in the direction of the wild back half of the Farm.
The first rule of farming? Right after "If you have livestock, you'll have dead stock," is "Fences first."
There is no comfortable spot to stow a beast of burden at present at the Farm. I found a longer bit of line and made a more secure halter, and when the pony trotted back –– and toward the road –– I recaptured her.
Making sure she was familiar to the limits of being tied (she had showed a great deal of sensibility and calm on our long walk), I anchored her to a handy tree and ate a belated lunch.
The consequences of my actions tossed her sweet head and snorted impatiently. She got a hoof over the line and stood balanced on three until I put down my lunch and rescued her.
She snorted and backed with zero dignity into the tenting platform so that she could rub her butt against the edge of the deck.
She took a bite of the evergreen and theatrically rejected it, tossing her thick mane and blowing flecks of green around. She was bored, bored, bored!
It entertaining program, but not a sustainable one.
I laid the options out to my favorite skipper: "One of us will have to drive up the road and ask a neighbor with a corral if we can put the pony there. The other will have to stay and hold the pony's lead." Into the considering silence, I added, "Which one do you want least?"
He elected to hold the pony. The man surprises me. I gave him a pointer or two –– he generally dislikes the whole family of Equus –– and dashed off.
Luckily, there's a messy farmstead up the way with a handful of cattle and horses, plus chickens, and as it turned out, eight sheepdogs. Beware the dogs indeed. Standing on the running board, I asked the woman who emerged from the scrum of dogs, "Hey, have you by chance lost a pony?"
She was standing a couple of yards away from the fence inside which a variety of horses and ponies and cows were calmly eating hay. She gestured over her shoulder and said, "Honestly, I don't know. These are my husband's horses."
I thought: and THERE is a successful marriage.
I told her about my wild pony, and she said, "Hmmm, my father-in-law lost a pony last summer." (The youthful horse-crazy kid in me silently fist-pumped at this additional proof that wild pony herds are possible).
Then she said she'd better come take a picture and text it in case it was one of her father-in-law's.
Yes. It was one of the father-in-law's bunch of horses, she told me. Name of Daisy. "She's a wanderer," my neighbor said, "Though usually she stays on the other side of the river. It's a long way to walk."
We chatted a bit, and then my neighbor led Daisy away. "I'll bring the rope back," she said.
I sighed and then said to Mr. Linton, "So, you remember that time we went fishing and I caught a wild pony?"
Hey Ho, a Pirate's Life for Me
Somehow the very idea of work get the stink eye –– golly, we wouldn't even wish it on our animal friends. The same animal buddies whose stalwart character and skills we've selected for across hundreds of generations.
But did any of us evolve all these years find our joy while melting into the upholstery? Add a bag of chips and a winning Lotto ticket, et voilá! The American Dream nirvana!
I don't mean to rant. Or actually I do. I just don't want to glaze anyone's eyes for them. Save the anesthetized stare for the third season of whatever's streaming today. Grrr.
What kind of malarkey are we putting on toast?
I'm not above it, truly. Work can suck.
Carriage horses sometimes die of heat exhaustion. Racehorses twist an elegant ankle and are seen no more on green pastures.
But can a person deny a horse the joy of running? The snarfling satisfaction of a well-fetched stick? The sweaty pleasure of that last log split and stacked?
Fiction Prompt: Giddyup.
Horses on the beach.
It's kind of a dream vacation activity, especially for those of us who resented being called horse-crazy even when that shoe actually fit...
This photo and adventure came from CPonies.com in February of 2019. That's me with the goofy hat by the Skyway. My sister (not a horse person. funny story.) in the ball cap. Her friend KB just off the right ear of the horse in the foreground.
But rather than report about it (big beautiful horses, dreamy setting, DOLPHINS!) let's just rift off it for a writing warm-up, shall we?
Story 1 – Shallop
I named him Shallop.
You know, for the boat, but also because of galloping, which is what I thought we would do all the time, non-stop, from morning till night.
I also thought that my very own horse –– not My Little Pony, but –– would be more affectionate, like a dog, but they are not the barking, panting, paws-on-your-trousers animals.
The affection of a horse is more like an ungainly boat bumping against a dock. Shallop would sidle right over me, trampling toes. He left dusty and slobbery streaks on my clothes and sideswiped me with his enormous face. He habitually covered himself with mud for me to brush. He would sometimes not allow himself to be caught.
But we galloped, and his long mane rippled and the sound of his hooves was like thunder.
Story 2 –– Horses in the Sea
They were not making the crossing between Assateague and Chincoteaque.
They were not straying from the tidal flats of Neuwerk.
They were not navigating a deep patch in the marshes of Carmague.
They were swimming on a beach somewhere while others were adrift in snow. They were scented with horse and coconut oil. They had nothing in their heads but what came in through their ears and eyes. They were riding and swimming and the air was soft with salt.
Does everything need to intersect in a person's life? Maybe not.
But music does anyhow.
When I was a young equestrian, I always kept my ears open for horsey music. I knew enough to hide a shameful soft-spot for Michael Martin Murphy's Wildfire.
(I know, I know <shakes head wearily> oy vey.)
When I moved to Florida, I exchanged horses for boats. Yet the music continues to want to intersect...
Hence, Wooden Ships by CSN, Sail Away by David Gray, Sail On Sailor by Beach Boy, Land Ho! by The Doors.
And the inevitable –– so customizable! –– Drunken Sailor.
But wait, as the huckster used to insist, there's more!
Fair winds and following seas, y'all.
Warm-up writing prompted by –– what else? A PONY!
There would be no escape this day. Sqantahonoh-neehoit (a name that roughly translates to "rhomboid-shaped fruit of the false-kola cactus") resolved again to bide her time. The art of survival was patience. It was a thing she'd come to know, along with the feel of the saddle on her back and the tug of the lead-line.
She'd witnessed what happened when patience ended. Her herd-mate, Gohollin-ah (meaning "Speedy wooly caterpillar" or, with a slightly different inflection "Wooly kitten"), had been lost to such an event. A day like any other until the moment of impatience. Followed by panic, a loud outcry, and a beating that ended badly. Before even the moon had a chance to rise, Gohollin-ah was taken away in a vehicle that smelled of blood and fear and death.
A hard day and a sorrowful night it had been.
The scent of freedom came to Squantohonoh-neehoit now –– nearly masked by the carnival odors of corndogs and fry-dough, and the tang of hot pavement –– on the dusty wings of the breeze. She did not reveal the glowing coal that was her spirit. She snuffed deeply of the freedom-wind, and reminded herself: I am patient. Patient as the log that waits for water. Patiently waiting for the flood to carry me free.
She would run again, she knew it. She would run and roll in the sand. She would crop sweet green grass and drink clear water as it sparkled over rock.
She did not hear her own deep sigh of sadness and longing.
She did not know that her patience would save her. She did not know the shape of the freedom could shift and change like snowdrift in a blizzard. But it would.
Okay, belay the antelope. There are no antelope at Paynes Prairie.
But there IS an actual prairie near Gainesville, Florida. Go figure. Where the buffalo roam even.
We made it home for a couple of days before New Year's.
Paynes Prairie was the state's first state park. It's also the subject of one of the great early narratives about nature in the New World.
In 1773, William Bartram traveled south from Philadelphia, sketching and making extensive notes that became Bartram's Travels, first published in 1791 by James and Johnson in Philadelphia.
Exerpt from page 128
THE alligator when full grown is a very large and terrible creature, and of prodigous strength, activity and swiftness in the water.
I have seen them twenty feet in length, and some are supposed to be twenty-two or twenty-three feet; their body is as large as that of a horse; their shape exactly resembles that of a lizard, except their tail, which is flat or cuniform, being compressed on each side, and gradually diminishing from the abdomen to the extremity, which, with the whole body is covered with horny plates or squammae, impenetrable when on the body of the live animal, even to a rifle ball, except about their head and just behind their fore-legs or arms, where it is said they are only vulnerable.
Best Book of the Month
Meg Rosoff"s The Bride's Farewell.
Maybe the best book of my reading year.
So many stories start off with a interesting set-up, but then turn in to the same-old same-old:
An under-appreciated gal finds love and a glamorous makeover.
The unreliable narrator turns out to be hiding a truth worse than you think at first.
Square-jawed hero will decode the ages-old secret before the collapse of civilization.
Freakishly clever serial killer will do awful things and then get caught, except he will escape in the last paragraph.
Don't get me wrong, these books can be delightful.
But we like surprises, we people do. Which might be why I have enjoyed this book so much.
The Bride's Farewell starts with a girl running away from home the morning she's to wed. It's 1850-something, and Pell takes some food, the coins meant as her dowry, her beloved horse and, then, as she starts off, finds that her silent little brother, Bean, refuses to be left behind.
Like many another character before her, Pell is different from her dirt-poor family, from other girls, from what society expects.
It's not just her unwillingness to settle down and marry the local boy she's known her whole life. It's not just her fear of ending up like her mother, exhausted and wrung-out from endless childbearing and grinding disappointment.
No, Pell is good with horses –– really good –– and she hopes to use this skill to make her own way through the world. But she does not quite reckon on the difficulties she'll face with people.
The Bride's Farewell is full of surprises and twists that make perfect sense in hindsight (like all the best fiction). Pell's insight into the thoughts of animals (matched by her lack of insight into the thoughts of humans) is utterly convincing and thought-provoking.
At 214 pages, it's easy to down in a single sitting, but Rosoff's stylistic strengths (the writing is vivid and restrained, with only the best details filled in) bear re-reading. Now go to your local and read it.
The open road. What a trio of words. What a vision of blue sky and untouched hills and narrow trails heading God knew where and being free––free and hungry, free and cold, free and wet, free and lost. Who could mourn such conditions, faced with the alternative?"
Not Made for Walking
I remember carefully inking in the item number and the size on the paper order form from Miller's. I'd been wanting them for ages, but it took a while to save up the money. I toted up the column of price, tax, handling, and wrote the check.
I used them at fancy-scmancy riding lessons in New Jersey's horse country (It does so have a horse country).
They moved with me to Florida, where they once carried me fleetly away from the kicking feet of a pair of mustangs who were –– as I learned –– not even remotely green-broke, no matter what the barn owner had promised.
Alas. I recently went to put them on.
Ye gods and small fishes! –– my wardrobe migrated from "funky," skipped "vintage," to whizz directly to "antique."
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