Author and illustrator of many magnificent picture books for children, native Australian Alison Lester has written a series of books for new readers titled Horse Crazy as well as two books for slightly older readers. Written in 1997, The Quicksand Pony reads almost like a fairy tale on the right side of reality. There is a grief stricken young woman who disappears with her baby, a wild dog who allows himself to be tamed and a beautiful pony named Bella who appears to have been magically rescued from a quicksand bog. But, Lester's telling of the story of Biddy, Joe and Bella is so vivid and straightforward I felt like I could almost smell the sea air and feel a chill as I read.
Set on a remote coastal headland in Australia, The Quicksand Pony tells the story of people who live in the wilds and off the wilds that surround them. They tale begins on a windy night nine years earlier when a girl and her baby set out in a boat and only the boat reaches land. The story picks up again with Biddy, almost ten and anxious to go on the annual cattle drive with her parents. She and her horse Bella prove their worth when the help round up some new cows who get spooked as they are being unloaded at the farm one night. Before the big trip, Biddy and her best friend Irene spend the afternoon braiding each other's hair and sharing stories. Biddy tells Irene that she is named after a real woman named Biddy who was a convict who, along with a few others, escaped prison and wrecked on the headlands. As the sole survivor Biddy lived of the land (and it's bugs) for a year or so until a local family took her in as a cook and eventually arranged for the governor to pardon her. Biddy's mum reckons that if she grows up to have half the guts of the convict Biddy she'll be all right. Irene tells Biddy a story about her Aunt Joycie and her baby who disappeared nine years ago. Although not much was known about them, Irene thinks that they are still alive and living wild in a remote area of the headlands.
The first day of Biddy's first cattle drive goes well and she relishes her time on the headlands with Bella. She and her parents round up 175 heads leaving only thirty-three to track down the next day. They drive the cattle to a holding yard on the headlands built by drovers may years ago and camp out near by. When they wake in the morning their bacon has been stolen and the horses manes and tails are all braided. Biddy's parents think she and the dogs had something to do with it, but Biddy thinks that Joycie and her son Joe might have had a hand. Not wanting to argue, Biddy and her parents start the drive home along the beach. The drive goes well until, herding a straggle of steers who wandered into the surf, Bella gallops into a sinkhole, a quicksand bog. Almost instantly she is buried up to her neck. With the high tide due in a few hours, Biddy works frantically to rescue her but to no avail. Her mother tries to comfort her, telling her the story of Taffy, another horse who was stuck in the quicksand and made it home safely when the high tide came in and loosened and he broke free as a way to comfort her when, finally, they have to continue the to drive the cattle home and leave Bella behind.
If you read my review of Ann M Martin's thoughtful and moving tale A Dog's Life, which is narrated by a homeless dog, then you know that I get a knot in my throat just thinking about an animal in danger and generally avoid books and especially movies that portray anything even remotely like that. However, I believe in suffering for my art and, while the title of this book definitely implies danger and injury, I forced my way through it so I could write a review for readers who do not have a similar weakness... Also, being a kid's book, I felt certain that Bella would be rescued and I was not disappointed. By who and how is what makes this story so interesting and fairy-tale like. Lester's descriptions of the terrain and how a person could survive on the land (almost) alone are fascinating and, in the most gentle way possible, she presents the reader with the realities of working with animals and doing work that relies on animals for a livelihood. In many ways, the life that Biddy's family lives is similar to the lives of ranchers living 100 years ago and The Quicksand Pony is an important glimpse into this kind of life and the hardships that come with it. You do not have to be a horse enthusiast or a girl to enjoy Alison Lester's compelling book.