Now then. I always have enjoyed this cover. We are told over and over how beautiful Stardust is, and god damnit, I believe it! Even if I don't know why. Maybe it's her name. I adore her name. So shut-up about it. And this picture doesn't disappoint. She is a pretty little chestnut mare laying in the most humongous stall ever. I also like the picture of Ashleigh. She's super cute, even though I'm not sure if she at all resembles her later incarnations on book covers. Maybe it's the bangs. And while I admire Ashleigh's dedication to her literary and equine pursuits, I do not think it's a good idea to have a kerosene lamp in a barn, resting on a pile of straw bedding in the middle of a stall that is also holding a horse too sick to stand. Also, I'm sure the paper in that diary burns, so there you go.
Okay, say what you want, but this book is good. Damn good. It is probably the least happy book in the entire series, in that really Ashleigh never catches a break, starting basically from day one. It's rich with fully-developed characters and beautifully descriptive scenes, and contains some of the most heartbreaking and memorable lines of any Thoroughbred book. I remember buying this book while on vacation in Pittsburgh when I was ten years old. At the time 241 pages equaled HUGE. But I HAD to read it all, I just had to, and therefore I stayed up the entire night reading the book in the hotel bath tub so the light wouldn't wake up the rest of my family. Truly, I love this book.Ashleigh's secret diary...
In the attic of her parents' home, champion Ashleigh Griffen discovers an old diary she had kept as a girl at Edgardale, her family's first breeding farm. Ashleigh is transported back in memory to the year she turned eleven - reliving her love for Stardust, a beautiful chestnut mare, and for Black Night, the spirited colt whose birth she witnessed.
Ashleigh remembers her terrible sadness when Black Night was stolen by horse thieves, and how hard she worked to find him. Painfully she recalls the devastation she felt during her struggle to save the horses she loved from a deadly virus that swept through Edgardale stables. And Ashleigh relives all the happiness and tragedy of knowing Stardust - her very first horse, who was taken from her much too soon...
There is an interesting note, however, about this book. It's actually quite baffling when you consider how good this book is. For those of you with a copy available, please join me in flipping to the dedication page. Now, let's all read together: "A special thanks to Karen Bentley." That's right. Before Bentley took over writing the series she was actually an editor. Which still fails to make any sense at all to me, because how could she make so many mistakes if she was editing the books prior to writing them? Isn't an editor's job to catch and fix mistakes? Did she suddenly lose the ability to self-edit when she became an author, or is she one of those super heroes with one of those frustratingly narrow super powers, which allowed her only to edit other people's work? Sadly, we will ever know.
Now, I'm making a huge stink about this dedication because I believe both Bentley AND Joanna Campbell herself informed me that Karen Bentley actually helped write this book. I know. I was completely shocked too, especially considering how god awful weird Ashleigh's Hope is. They are like two different universes. But, reading the book with this knowledge, you can tell what parts Bentley had a hand in and what parts Campbell did. So we're going to play a game as this review progresses called, "Bentley or Campbell?" At the end the winner will get absolutely nothing. And, as this is a long book this will be a long review, assuring that plenty of points will be handed out.
This book opens, quite endearingly, during the present-day TB time line with, Ashleigh and her mother going through boxes of memorabilia at the Griffens' new breeding farm. Ashleigh is a 23 year old newlywed and successful jockey who now owns a farm of her own. She's sorting through all her stuff because Rory, also all grown up, will be studying abroad, so they have to make room for more of his stuff in the house. Part of the reason I love this book so much are the Prologue and Epilogue. In these two short chapters we get a glimpse into the lives of these characters that we've never seen. Ashleigh sorts through scrapbooks and finds fan letters addressed to the horses she rode, which still makes my heart turn to mush. She plays with the toy horses she unearths, and we are treated to a pleasing anecdote about an old stuffed toy, Blackie, destroyed by four-year-old Rory and a fork. Even the way Ashleigh interacts with her mother is beyond charming. Mrs. Griffen finds Ashleigh's old horse books and Ashleigh wants to keep them for when she has children (apparently in this book, which was written after Ashleigh's Christmas Miracle, Christina is not even yet a gleam in Mike's penis), and Ashleigh's mother absolutely freaks out at the idea of her daughter having sex. Because married people don't have sex. Awk-ward.
Eventually Mrs. Griffen decides she can't stand the dust bunnies and goes downstairs, leaving Ashleigh alone to tackle the memories. Ashleigh comes across an old blue brush that used to belong to her very first horse, Stardust, and then unearths her diary that she kept while at Edgardale. She's surprised at the strong feelings the mere thought of the farm provokes within her, and as she begins to reread her diary, she is transported to the past.
Okay. So now we were in the world of eleven year old Ashleigh, who has just found out the she is soon going to own her very own horse. Her parents have promised her Stardust as a present for graduating elementary school with the stipulation that she must pass all her classes with a C or better. This is kind of like blackmail, even though not really, because Ashleigh doesn't like to do her homework, least of all math. Ashleigh's aversion to school always totally endeared her to me. I looked up to Samantha, who got good grades, and therefore wanted to get those good grades myself. But I also struggled with math, and there is something so appealing about a character who had a flaw. Because the important thing here is not that Ashleigh's stupid, it's that she doesn't like to do homework and therefore doesn't do it. She breaks the rules. Something else I can still understand. Also, I hated math.
To get back to the story, Ashleigh is just thrilled. She'll be able to spend all summer going on trail rides with her best friend Mona and her Thoroughbred mare, Frisky. Even better, the farm's best broodmare, Wanderer, has just foaled. She chooses to do this during morning chores, of course, so every single person on the farm crowds around to watch her. Not only that, but Ashleigh and Rory go into the stall to pet the foal before he's even been licked dry. If you remember our little game, it's really impossible to tell who's responsible for this kind of unbelievable bit of fluff, but get ready because you're about to get smacked with walloping dose of Bentley. You see, Ashleigh is the first thing this little black colt ever sees and he immediately falls head over heals in love with her. He even thinks she's his mother. Also we're gifted with the name "Black Night," which I hesitate to pin on any one author because both ladies had a propensity for stupidly descriptive names. So I will just say that either way I do not like it. Black Knight, maybe. Black Night, punch me in the face.
Lots of frolicking with the foals and on horseback abounds. Ashleigh is way too busy having equine fun to study for her math final. She keeps putting it off and putting it off before realizing, holy shit, I'm kind of screwed. And yes, screwed she is because she flunks that test big time. As in doesn't even finish half the questions on the test. Yikes. Though I don't really blame her because 15 pages of equations for a fifth grade math test sounds a little heavy to me. Also, these math problems are crazy. Example: If a car goes fifty miles on three gallons of gas, then it goes how many miles on two gallons?. What? Does that even make sense? Aren't you missing a variable? Do you divide 50 by three? I mean...I would fail that question too.
Moving on from that baffling word problem (and my inability to solve it, which leaves me terrified that I will flunk math this semester), Ashleigh gets a big, fat "D," which means summer school and no riding until she's passed. Unlike say, Cindy, Ashleigh doesn't whine about it. She just sort of miserably accepts her fate and doubles down to study harder while spending every spare minute taking care of Stardust. Ashleigh spends a great deal of this book not riding, and she doesn't whine about it, at all. Clearly this is Campbell's doing, because if this was a Bentley character, Ashleigh would slit her wrists or hold her family up at gun point if she wasn't allowed to ride.
Despite not being able to ride, things aren't going so bad for Ashleigh. She's passing math thanks to her hard work. She's also spending a lot of time with Black Night, who has a totally creepy obsession with her. He's also the fastest foal in his playgroup, and is the dominant foal, of course. He's basically Champion without the bad attitude. It's quite clear he's going to be a spectacular horse, and Ashleigh spends a lot of time wishing her family could keep him, but she knows they can't afford it. She settles for going to the races to watch another of Wanderer's foals race. They bump into Townsend Pride at the racetrack too, a nice little shout-out to the later series.
Mona goes with the Griffens, but when they return home they discover that someone's stolen Friskey! Oh no. So, who can we blame this outrageous horse thievery on, Campbell or Bentley? Campbell is the one who came up with the whole Glory Was Stolen plot, but this whole thing also kinds of smacks of Bentley, so I give them both a point. Anyway, Ashleigh is so worried about Frisky that she decides the thing to do is ride Stardust bareback out into the woods during the early morning to look for her, even though she is grounded from riding and there may be dangerous horse thieves lurking in the shadows. For this I give Bentley a point.
Remember though, Campbell is also at the helm here, so thankfully Ashleigh does not stumble upon a marauding band of land pirates holding Frisky for ransom in some ram-shackle barn while they whip her to death. No, instead Ashleigh rides into a branch, falls off, and sprains her ankle. This means no riding until the end of August. Dude, dumb move Ashleigh. She knows this though, and just sort of bravely soldiers on. She also commiserates with Mona because now they both can't ride. I like Mona, you know? I just thought I'd say that.
After some more soldiering Ashleigh and her family, sans Caroline, go to the tack store to buy some supplies. Ashleigh finds a beautiful blue body brush on sale and buys it for Stardust. Honestly, at this point I was like, WTF is the big deal with this brush? But it actually matters later, so anyway. When the Griffens arrive home they find Caroline sobbing: the horse thieves have struck again, and this time they've stolen Wanderer and Black Night. This is pretty devastating, not only because Black Night can't possibly survive without Ashleigh and vice versa, but because they were the two most valuable horses on the farm. What can be done?
After a whole lot of nothing, Ashleigh and Mona decide to place an add in the classifieds asking people to report any suspicious behavior. This is probably where the Bush administration got the idea. For this I give Bentley a point because obviously it ends up saving the day - someone sees the add, thinks about their suspicious horse-dealing neighbor, and calls the police. Huzzah, all the horses are found and Ashleigh and Black Night are reunited in an uncontrollable burst of whinnying and tears of joy.
Okay, so now everything is perfect, right? Ashleigh can ride again, Stardust is hers, Mona has Frisky back, the horse thieves are going to fry in the electric chair, and Ashleigh even got an A- on a math quiz. Things couldn't be better. Ashleigh's mom is so happy she knocks on wood, an incident described in a journal passage that I always found rather horrifying because quickly thereafter all of the horses on the farm start getting sick. Always make sure you're not knocking on Formica, but actual wood, kids, always. Because apparently the Griffen's entire home is made of Formica, for Elaine can find NO wood to knock on.
It turns out the horses have equine rhinopneumonitis, a rather terrifying virus in which they get flu like symptoms and also become paralyzed, losing the ability to stand. They begin to drop like flies, a pun that is quite horrible but also accurately descriptive. Five of the broodmares get sick, including Wanderer, and the devastated Griffens allow their children to stay home from school to help keep the farm together. Ashleigh, heartbroken, wants to take back her earlier wish that she could skip school to stay at the barn.
Then both Stardust and Black Night get sick. This crosses the line for Ashleigh and she decides she's never leaving the barn again. In her mind, leaving the barn will surely cause the death of her two favorite horses. Stardust is the priority, and after untold amounts of time sitting in the stall with her, the mare actually recovers. Then Ashleigh switches her priorities to Black Night. She sits in the stall with him, telling him a story about what he's going to be like when he's a Triple Crown winning race horse, something I find to be just completely endearing. She eventually falls asleep, and when morning finally arrives she wakes up to find her family outside the stall. But Black Night is still warm, so she's sure he weathered the storm. Except then she realizes the only warm part of him is his head, which was in her lap, and she starts bawling and begging her parents not to take her away from him, because she won't be able to take care of him. Of course the colt is dead, and Ashleigh is taken away, sobbing, by her parents.
All told the Griffens have lost five broodmares along with Black Night, including the two most valuable broodmares, Slewette and Wanderer. There's no way they can recoup their losses, and they announce to their children they'll have to sell the farm and all the horses and find a job as breeding managers on another farm. They'll even have to sell Stardust because they won't be allowed to bring their own horses to someone else's farm. I could buy them not being able to afford boarding a horse, but is there some sort of ban on children's riding horses at Thoroughbred breeding farms in Kentucky that I don't know about?
Anyway, this is just too much for Ashleigh, so she runs off and goes on a wild trail ride with Stardust, wherein they jump a four foot tree without any training because in this series fallen trees are EVERYWHERE. Then the farm is sold and a distraught Ashleigh watches as the new owners pet Stardust while her parents pack boxes into the car for the move to Townsend Acres.
Thus ends the flashback, along with the diary. It's dark out now, and Ashleigh is sitting in the attic in the dark and the dust. She's still deep into her gloomy reverie when Mike appears and teases her about sitting in the middle of the dust. Then he mentions that he was looking at an old scrapbook while waiting for her downstairs, and asks her about Stardust and Black Night. Turns out Ashleigh has never really told him much about either of them, especially Black Night, which spoke to me a lot about how much the whole incident hurt her, and still hurts her. But she smiles and tells him, actually, Stardust is still alive, then promises to tell him more later.
He goes off to dinner and she sits there contemplating her toy horses thinking, "she'd outgrown them. Or maybe the idea of them had grown into something else: real horses she had bred, ridden, and loved." I absolutely adored this line, about growing into your dreams instead of out of them, because this is what Ashleigh did! It's such a positive message to send young readers. Then she thinks about how her failure to save Black Night was made up for when she worked so hard to save Wonder, giving us yet another insight into her character. Her zealous drive to keep Wonder alive seems to make even more sense, if she's working to assuage some sense of personal guilt over all the horses that died, even though it wasn't her fault.
Eventually Ashleigh decides to put away the past in the view of her wonderful new life. She picks up Stardust's old body brush to recycle at Whitebrook, which somehow seems poignant to me, as it points out how life really does go on. The brush is a symbol that Ashleigh has finally accepted what happened at Edgardale and is going to incorporate those experiences into her life, using them to further her newfound happiness and success at Whitebrook and acknowledging the role those painful events played in ultimately changing her life for the better. Then she stops and picks up Blackie, the ragged little fork horse she was going to throw away. She decides to take him with her too, and here we have the best paragraph, or concluding paragraph of the series EVER:
With gentle hands, Ashleigh took Blackie out of the trunk too. She stood there a moment longer, stroking his torn and dirty coat. He could be patched and made whole. Some things could, anyway.Oh my GOD, how heart-wrenchingly bittersweet. This book is pretty hard to recover from, even though we know for Ashleigh there was eventually a happy ending. And neither Bentley or Campbell drops the ball on keeping that mood up to the very end. I don't know about you, but I feel for Ashleigh and the Griffens every time the virus hits and those horses start dying, even though I know Ashleigh is going to end up with Wonder and become Super Triple Crown Jockey Princess. This is probably the most death and devastation we see in the whole series, and what's more, even though characters like Black Night only exist for one book, we care about them. His pasture mates, Seattle Sound and Bandit, and their mothers, Slewette and My Georgiana, all became memorable too. All around, this was just a great book.
Points of Interest:
- Why must Ashleigh and/or the main character ALWAYS have exactly three other friends at school, one of which is who maddeningly popular/pretty, but nice too. Why? I hate that character. Who cares who is popular? Really.
- If you are looking at a fallen tree from stump to top, since when is the center the widest part? Most trees are wide at one end and not at the other, unless you're jumping a pine tree. But I don't care, really, because WTF is up with all these fallen trees?
- For the movies Caroline selects to wear an oversize green top and matching leggings. I don't think we were rockin' this style in 1995, yo, but maybe Caroline was ahead of her time.
- I'm sorry Ash but, Ashleigh Racing Thoroughbreds is the worst name for a barn. Ever.
- I adore that Ashleigh and Mona type their classified ad up on Derek Griffen's computer, but they need a dictionary to make sure they spelled "suspicious" right. Perhaps this was back in the day before word processors had spell checks? If there ever was that day.
- Ashleigh's family is friends with someone who owns a lake. An entire lake. Does anyone else think this is possible?
- When the vet gives Elaine Griffen his diagnosis she exclaims, "Not paralytic rhinopneumonitis!" I just found this to be incredibly funny.
- Even though there are no jeeps in this book, there certainly is a casserole!
- When Wanderer dies, both of Ashleigh's parents cry openly, something that made me oh so sad, but was yet another little detail in this book that I loved.