Jul 22, 2008

Crushing depression + horses = crushing depression

Not on a White Horse
by Nancy Springer
Published: 1988

So, I used to own this book when I was younger and it was something I reread often. I must have had a few passages memorized because it seems absolutely none of it faded.

Incidentally, I had the paperback version of this book, which had a completely different cover that I oddly do not remember at all. Since various internet searches left me with nothing except this cover...I guess this is the cover we will use. I'm not a big fan of it, but that's probably because it's boring.

Rhiannon DiAngelo's reality is the despair of a western Pennsylvania coal-mining town where unemployment, alcoholism, and teenage pregnancy are the norms. But her dream is of horses, and when she reads a notice in the paper about a white Arabian lost and running loose amid the scrub woods and slag heaps, she feels she has to find him.

Angel, as Ree names the horse, appears to her fleetingly, and pursuit of this, her dream, changes Rhiannon's life. Her search for Angel leads her to Chickie Miller, a soft-hearted farrier, and his family, and to Prince, a starved and neglected horse who desperately needs her.

Although her dream of trying to catch Angel seems a futile fantasy, Ree finds that her dream of being with horses can be real. Meeting and learning from Chickie gives her a new perspective and the strength to make new choices in life.

Starting off, I'm going to say first that there is nothing happy and light about this book. It's not even unintentionally funny. It's all depression, all the time. So I'm not quite sure why I was so intrigued by it when I was ten or however old. It just starts out depressing, and ends about 1% less depressing. I have a feeling that was Nancy Springer's modus operandi, and probably why I could never get through any of her other books. Although, lucky me, my library has what looks like all of her other horse books, so I guess, Colt, Sky Rider, The Boy on a Black Horse, They're All Named Wildfire, The Great Pony Hassle, and A Horse to Love will all be seen in the future of this blog. And by the time I'm done with those I'll probably be on suicide watch.

So anyway, Rhiannon is our twelve-year-old protagonist. Her father, Bob, is an unemployed steel worker (this I find interesting given we keep hearing about the closed coal mines and not about the shut down steel mills, so I'm not sure if this is a glaring disconnect or what) who does odd jobs for money that he immediately spends on booze. Her mother, Bonnie, works two jobs and doesn't get paid enough. Then there's Rhiannon, her sister, Deirdre, and her brother, Shawn. Rhiannon is the middle child, and she's horse crazy but has absolutely no riding experience because she learned a long time ago that riding lessons where so far out of her family's league that I guess she never bothered asking for them. She sees an ad for a lost white Arabian, and immediately rushes off to look for this horse, bringing her boy-crazy friend Lisa along with her.

Anyway, eventually she starts seeing this horse and gets in contact with the owner, Chickie. He's one of those extremely nice guys who offers to let her go riding with him to hunt down this horse, because she's the only one who's been seeing it and he's been having no luck. Rhiannon is thrilled with this development, and finally starts to learn how to ride. Only then her dad has to ruin the whole experience by asking her if Chickie is molesting her. Yes, that would be a mood ruiner, but Rhiannon is determined to not be like her older sister, whom I guess lets older men touch her? I don't know about that, and no one elaborates. So anyway, Rhiannon gets all pissed off and says something about how her dad is just a drunk who is basically worthless, and her father overhears this and decides that he's going to run off somewhere and be worthless by himself.

For the record, Rhiannon spends more time hunting down her crazy father than she does this Arabian. She usually finds him, and this is mainly because she's always scared he's going to go get drunk and jump off a bridge. So, besides her rapidly degenerating home life, things are going pretty well for Rhiannon at Chickie's until he brings home this neglected horse. Chickie sort of collects neglected horses, much to his wife's annoyance. But he insists on helping this horse out and Rhiannon lends a hand with the horse, which she names Prince because it was the name she was saving for her very own horse. Stupid name, sure, but I always really liked Prince. He is the total opposite of all the other abused/neglected horses that have been saved in the countless books I've read for this blog. He loves people. In fact, he can't get enough attention from people and wants desperately to please, which makes him even more pathetic.

Anyway, while Prince is on the mend he picks out Rhiannon as his special person, as we all knew he would, and then Rhiannon's sister does the expected stupid thing and runs off with her boyfriend to get married. Then her dad runs off again. And she has to go find him...again...and he tells her about how he always wanted more for his kids than to keep the evil cycle of stupidity going by forgoing education and happiness for marriage and children. With this message still in her head, Rhiannon does not react well when Bucky, Chickie's son who is "almost out of high school," kisses her and wants to "show" her other "things." She tells him she's almost thirteen and he kicks himself for thinking she's fifteen, although later on he starts showering attention on Lisa, who is only thirteen and the squick factor reaches unbelievable heights.

Eventually Rhiannon's sister comes home, upset that married life wasn't all dancing and eating out, or something. It's also heavily implied that she needs an abortion, and the divorce is glossed over. The problem is Deirdre is being a bitch about all of this, so her dad smacks her around and then goes on what appears to be a two week long bender in Pittsburgh. Rhiannon loses herself in riding Chickie's horses out to find Angel, who she hasn't seen in a while. Angel then becomes a major metaphor for her happiness and whatever else, as she eventually does find the horse and even catches him. Only he sort of beats her up and escapes again. Then her dad comes home. Ta da! Metaphor complete. Or almost complete. Whatever.

So her dad realizes what a drunk bastard he is and decides to go to AA. He comes to tell Rhiannon this at Chickie's place, and she's a little beyond caring and just tells him whatever. Getting sober and finding a job is his decision. She's already decided to go to school and become a farrier or a vet or something so she can get away from their insanely depressing mining town. Then she takes Prince on a walk and finds Angel again, with the lead rope she'd used to try to capture him still around his neck. He comes up to socialize with Prince and she takes this opportunity to take the lead rope off Angel. Then Angel runs off and she takes Prince back home.

  • It occurs to me now how completely out of nowhere the Rhiannon/Bucky, Bucky/Lisa thing is. You don't expect him to just out of nowhere kiss Rhiannon, because there's barely anything there to support why he'd randomly do that besides the fact that the story requires angst for Rhiannon on a more personal level while she's learning that being a high school dropout so you can give birth to babies when you're sixteen will make you be unhappy forever is a bad thing.
  • Plus, the Lisa thing. I cannot for the life of me figure out why they are friends. Especially when Rhiannon outright tells Lisa she's going to be just like Deirdre.
  • At one point, Chickie is going on and on about how people shouldn't breed their horses if they don't know what they're doing because they wind up with a neglected foal that isn't trained properly and...well, you can guess the rest. This becomes a metaphor for stupid people like Rhiannon's sister who run off and get married and have babies at the age of 16, drawing a comparison between breeding horses and breeding people that I found pretty fascinating, actually. Stupid people should not breed unsound horses. Just like stupid people should not breed to each other. Rhiannon starts pondering how this applies to her life, finally amusing me somewhat.
I don't know. I still think it's a fairly solid book. It is way more depressing than I remember it being, though. To the point where I guess it makes sense to me now why I never could get through The Boy on a Black Horse and never bothered with anything else by Nancy Springer. Her books are almost like children's versions of In The Presence of Horses by Barbara Dimmick. Which I should really reread for this blog, because it made me want to throw it through a window the first time around.


Claire said...

yay! i'm glad to see that my difficulties with this book and all springer's others weren't just something to do with me. i think i finished sky rider because i know i own it, which means it couldn't have been too depressing, but i never finished any of her other books, not even this one.

she reminds me a big of patricia calvert, who also wrote depressing books, but not AS depressing if memory serves. i'll have to dig out the ones i have.

molly said...

I've never heard of these books. Excellent, something new to hunt down! Man, though, this woman sounds like a huge downer.

sundae_mourning said...

from the title, i thought it was going to be that book where the girl has to count one hundred white horses, then walk around the block twice without stopping and then gets to make a wish. does that sound familiar to anyone else? i can't remember the title at all, though "white horse" must have been part of it.