4.22.2009

The Snow Pony by Alison Lester, 194 pp, RL 6


I read all of Alison Lester's marvelous horse books back-to-back and feel like I have just spent the week on horseback in the rural Australian outback. I can almost smell the dry, dusty roads, the hay and the manure. Horse Crazy, her series for young readers, is playful and gentle with relatively well behaved horses and only little tidbits of danger here and there. The Quicksand Pony, for slightly older readers, introduces a higher level of danger and a more emotionally complex story that is resolved with a happy ending. The Snow Pony, while slightly under two hundred pages, is an emotionally tense, gripping story of young girls growing up and learning that sometimes they can't trust the adults in their lives as well as a harrowing, at times, account of the hardships, dangers and tragedies that come from working with and earning a living off animals and the land.

Set in a landscape similar to that of The Quicksand Pony, The Snow Pony is the story of Dusty Riley and the brumby (wild horse) who comes into her life. When we first meet her, Dusty is about ten years old and her world is almost perfect. She is brave and strong, helping her father with his cattle farming business. He even refers to her as his "right hand man." Dusty's younger brother, Stewie, who almost died when he was an infant, spends most of his time inside with his mother creating art projects. Jack Riley is a fourth generation rancher on his inherited land called The Willows, near the town of Banjo, Australia, and proud of his knowledge and success. Every year at the start of summer the Rileys take three days to walk their cattle up to the lush clover fields some fifty kilometers away to their property in the mountains they refer to as The Plains so that they could spend the summer grazing and growing fat. Each autumn, before the snows came, they muster up the three hundred heads of cattle and drive them back down the mountain to The Willows. It is while they are up at The Plains that Dusty first sees the Snow Pony. When her father brings the mare home for her and she Dusty is beside herself with excitement, then pride when proves to be the only rider the beautiful horse will accept.

Time passes and, while the Snow Pony allows herself to be ridden and even trained to jump by Rita, Dusty's mother who was once a champion jumper herself, the mare still has unpredictable moments that bring pain and worse to Dusty and her family. As the taming, training and showing of the Snow Pony is unfolds, Dusty's father Jack is slowly unravelling. A prolonged drought is depleting his bank account and dwindling the herd cows that are his main source of income. Dusty, now fourteen, notices the changes in her father as well as the distance he keeps from her and the horse shows that allow her to win much needed money that now helps feed the family and farm. Dusty's relationship with her father is complex and evolving, moving from a young girl's admiration of her super-hero like father to the realization that he is human and capable of frustration, shame and weakness. She witnesses him drunk and verbally abusive but she also hears him make the call to get help for his alcoholism. She sees him in moments of strength and weakness, both physically and emotionally and takes it all in, sometimes protecting herself by turning her back on him, sometimes trying to reach out to him and her mother. Lester does not shy away from the realities of adult responsibility (and the shirking of it) nor does she shy away from the sometimes brutal realities of the lives of animals in nature and the cruelties that humans sometimes inflict on them and each other.

The drought has made her homes life tense and, when her best friend Sally goes off to boarding school, Dusty's social life deteriorates also. Lacking the money to join Sally at boarding school as she always thought she would, Dusty is bused, an hour each way, to the nearest high school. Without friends and feeling like a hick at times, she keeps her nose in a book and tries to ignore the names the other kids call her. She continues to jump the Snow Pony and rise in the rankings, all the while earning money for the family. When Jack finally snaps and his wife confronts him, he gets help and the family begins to heal. Jack, Dusty and Stewie plan to ride out to The Plains together to drive the cattle down the mountain. At this point, another thread in the story unwinds and we get a glimpse into the life of Jade, a fifteen year oldf, also a loner at the high school Dusty attends. Jade's mother is a dreadlocked free spirit who doesn't always make the right choices and rarely puts the needs of her children before her own. When she heads off to Melbourne to take care of her sister's kids, as well as have some fun in the city, she leaves fifteen year old Jade in the care of her older brother Travis and his questionable, thirty year old friend Horse. Travis and Horse decide to go on a hunting/drinking trip along with Horse's friend Neville and his dogs and force Jade to come along. The group finds themselves camped at The Plains, drunk and shooting up a storm as Jack, Dusty and Stewie are driving the cow home to the paddock. The animals spook and a stampede ensues. Before calm is returned, Stewie is knocked off his horse and unconscious. Jack confronts the group and stands them down, warning them to get off the mountain before the snowstorm that is on it's way breaks, making the roads impassible. The group drive off, leaving Dusty with the feeling that she should have done something to help Jade, but overwhelmed by the situation and social barriers.

However, Jade manages to help herself. Uncomfortable and wary from the start, sickened by the violence and drunkenness of the men, Jade launches herself out of the speeding truck when Neville makes a move on her and threatens to kill Horse if he tries to stop him. She then runs to safety, along with a hunting dog who has been thrown out of the truck, back to The Plains, sixteen kilometers, in a snow storm. This part of the book was disturbing to me. The men Jade was traveling with seemed truly menacing and violent, toward Jade and animals they encountered. At times, I felt like I was reading an adult book and was reminded of why I stopped reading adult books - I no longer want to experience the emotional brutality or violence humans inflict on each other and the world around them. I struggled with whether to write a review of this book at all, wondering if it contains more mature content than parents are willing to expose their children to. Then I asked myself this question. Having read this book, and been both moved and horrified by the events of the story, but coming away at the end feeling like I had been somewhere and seen something important, would I let my daughter read it? She is almost sixteen now, so the answer is "Yes." Would I have let her read it when she was 10? Possibly. 11 or 12? Yes. I would let her read it. One thing I have learned as a parent is that I can't always shield my children from my emotional moments, whether I am sad or angry. I can't always box myself up at those times to keep them from seeing my pain. Some parents can, and that is a wonderful thing. Some parents can shield their children from the messiness and loudness of adulthood for many, many years and I think that is great also. I have never had the foresight or self-restraint to do that so I have to come up with justifications for exposing my children to the world of adults. What I tell myself is this, "One day this (adulthood) will be their domain and I don't want it to be mysterious when they enter it. I want them to know that people can be unkind and thoughtless to each other on a daily basis so I will let them read glimpses of this when it pops up in a children's book." On those grounds, I feel that it would be acceptable for my 11 year old daughter to read a book in which a girl slightly older than her sees her father fall apart and drink to excess, a book in which she sees characters behaving in an ignorant and brutal manner towards animals and teenage girls, a book in which, because of an accident, a young girl must step up and take on the responsibilities of an adult.

As if the horrors of the drunken hunters and Jade's escape aren't enough, Jack is injured the next day as the group tries to prepare to drove the cattle back down the mountain, through the snow, to The Willows. While splinting the leg of a calf who was injured in the stampede caused by the hunters, Jack is battered by the calf's crazy mother. The kids manage to get him out of the paddock and into the house, but they know they have very little time to get him the medical help he needs. Jack tells Dusty and Jade, who has never ridden a horse and scared of them, that they must drive the cattle down the mountain to the nearest town and get help. How the girls do this and survive an encounter with the Snow Pony's old herd of brumbies makes up the last part of the book. I realize I gave away most of the plot, but I felt like, in light of the mature incidents that occur, I want parents to know all the details before they hand this book over to their daughters - let's be honest, I can't imagine a boy reading this book. Like I said in my review of The Quicksand Pony, stories with animals in danger, especially animals who have acts of cruelty inflicted upon them by humans, are verboten on my bookshelves. I have only recently begun to read books with these themes because I want to be able to review a wide range of books for all interests. And, while this story might have made me cringe, gasp and gulp in parts, I do not regret the time I devoted to reading it for a minute. Especially as it is the fourth and final chapter book by Alison Lester I read in a row. It was fascinating to observe her craft as she told the stories of girls and their horses, first in a gentle and playful manner, then gradually adding layers of emotional and character depth onto her plots, increasing the potential for danger and loss, ending with a well written, masterfully wrought story of a young girl growing up, learning to love, trust and lead.

I hope I have provided you enough information to make an informed decision in regards to who should read this book and when. If not, I strongly encourage you to read The Snow Pony yourself. It is a gripping, fast read with complex human and animal characters you will be drawn to.

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