by Natale Ghent
I picked this up a while back and just now got around to reading it. No Small Thing was short-listed for the Canadian Library Association's Book of the Year and the Rocky Mountain Book Award, so I guess this is what's called a quality horse book. Well, a quality horse book aimed to the 9-12 crowd in any case.
When twelve-year-old Nathaniel and his sisters, Cid and Queenie, discover an ad for a free pony, they can hardly believe their luck. But how will they afford to take care of it? And what will their struggling single mother say? Amazingly, she says yes. And so begins a year of discovery for Nat, who must deal with his father's absence, look out for Queenie, who is "different," and sort out his feelings about a rich, pretty girl at school. Life isn't easy, but Nat knows he has his very own pony waiting for him at the end of every day. Until a fire destroys the barn....This is another one of those first-person stories told from the male perspective. Which is fine, really, and would be great if not for the fact that Nat is superbly dull. Granted, I didn't expect this to be a Judy Blume novel or anything, but honestly we've got a twelve-year-old kid who, upon being bestowed with his first kiss, starts to fantasize about marriage and babies? What? Well, we'll get to that later.
The novel starts out with the ad for the free pony. Nat and his sisters, Cid and Queenie, had ponies previously back when their life was splendid and the picture of domestic bliss. But that was before. When they lived in Illinois. I think. But then they moved to Ontario and their dad left and now their mom makes almost no money and they never have new jeans to wear. These people sound like prime candidates for pony ownership, don't you think?
When they see the pony they practically fall upon it like the pony-starved children they are. The people who are giving it away couldn't get their own kids interested in it, so Nat takes Queenie's bridle (she asked for a bridle one year, and thus got a bridle...despite not owning a horse at the time) and puts it on the pony and off they go. Oh, I should also mention that this pony is pretty much just how it looks on the cover, its name is Smokey and it is a stallion. That's right. A stallion.
They walk Smokey off back to town and once they are far enough down the road they start to ride it. Bareback. Without helmets. Once they stick little 8-year-old Queenie up there you just know something horrible is going to happen. I mean, really, this is just too obvious. So what happens, you may ask? A giant dog comes out of nowhere and attacks them. Bet you didn't see that happening, right? Well, either way, something was going to happen and Queenie falls off and everyone tries to kick this dog and Smokey runs away, but comes back. Only Queenie breaks her collarbone, which means their mother is going to have to know about this pony thing. So they stick Smokey in an extremely cheap nearby boarding stable and go home, where Nat's mom proceeds to slap him around before whisking Queenie off to the hospital. When she comes back she demands that Nat take the pony back, and he erupts into one of his "i hate you!" fits and runs away. To the barn. And because his mom is all shocked and dismayed that her son blames her for his lot in life, she lets him keep the pony so long as he keeps paying for it out of his paper route money.
But then one of the other boarders gets all snippy because Smokey is a stallion. Smokey is the most pleasant stallion around, but the other boarder won't have it and Nat glumly decides to cut off Smokey's balls. Poor, poor Smokey. Nat certainly disapproves of this, because he wouldn't want his balls cut off, after all. No, really. So they spend the rest of his money on gelding Smokey and Nat worries about whether or not Smokey will be the same. Of course, he's still the same. They proceed to ride him around bareback without helmets and then come up with this method of driving him around by attaching twine to his halter and making him drag their sled and if this sounds like some teenybopper fantasy, then it really is.
Eventually Nat probably starts having wet dreams about this girl named Cheryl, who gets all excited about Smokey. But this is not a Judy Blume book, so Nat bottles these feelings down deep and thinks about Cheryl's tight sweater and about how wonderful it will be when she's carrying his children or something to that effect. Cheryl kisses Nat, provoking all of these domestic feelings, but Cheryl is unfortunately rich and cannot be seen with Nat and inexplicably decides to start seeing this high school boy who can drive although she's only 13, so ew. Nat is suitably crushed, so he can stop worrying about his appearance and focus on how Smokey is living in sub par conditions. The owner of the barn has a horse he doesn't really take care of, so during a blizzard he really doesn't take care of the horse and this means a beam has to fall on said horse and break its neck.
This makes every other boarder leave the stable except for Nat and Smokey, because he can't afford to go anywhere else. Poor people, after all, can't be choosers. So he just waits around until the barn goes up into flames. Smokey is okay, but the barn is done. The owner of the barn suggests that they sell Smokey to these rich people who want to enter Smokey in some pony shows or whatnot. Now, I will try to completely ignore the fact that this drunkard guy with the worst stable in the city knows well-to-do people well enough to suggest a horse for their precious snobby boy to buy, but...no, I can't ignore that. Like hell the guy who's hardly been around in the novel is suddenly going to pop up and tell Nat that his rich friends want to buy his pony. Right. Anyway, right about here Nat's mom tells the kids that she has to sell the house. She can't pay her electricity bill, and has $5 in her account at one point that she spent on a Christmas tree, so the house has got to go. Nat and Cid freak out on her, but eventually come to their senses and decide to sell Smokey.
Only the snobby boy comes to pick Smokey up and Nat can't do it. He rides off on Smokey and fantasizes some more about living on the land with his sparkling fairy pony. Then a police cruiser finds him and he tries to outrun the cruiser and nearly runs over an old lady before being cornered and told that he has to, you know, go home. He goes home, and his mom tells him he can keep Smokey because the money they'll get from the house will cover his expenses. Although, given that I just sold a house, methinks someone is incredibly short sighted.
Thrilled that he can keep Smokey, Nat goes and takes a bath and ponders the meaning of the universe. Not surprisingly, Smokey is the center of the universe.
- So, who is really sick of the we're-poor-but-we-can-keep-a-pony/horse-no-problem! plot? The whole point of No Small Thing is that Smokey is NO SMALL THING. He's big and important and should be difficult to take care of when you have $5 TOTAL. Then again, if you only have $5, methinks you probably shouldn't have a mortgage.
- At the end, Nat just goes and takes a bath. No one stops to think about how they're going to pay for this pony's upkeep until the house is sold and they'll suddenly have this surplus of cash. Where is Smokey going to live? Their back yard?