Jul 2, 2008

Glad to be Back in the Saddle

I'll start this by saying that if you guys have a strong desire to see us read and review one book or another, you should check out the requests thread Mara posted way back when. We are always open to suggestions.

Anyway, all this rereading of old childhood horse books inspired me to dig a few of my book boxes out of the nooks they've been shoved away in. I used to have quite an extensive collection but, unfortunately, in a crazy money-making scheme, I sold many of my old horse books. Luckily, I did keep the best ones, or the ones I remembered as being the best. This book, Back in the Saddle, the first of the Silver Creek Riders series, is one of the ones I remembered as the best but completely forgot, probably because the series was only three books long. But lo and behold, it was in one of my boxes, so I thought I'd review it and see if it lived up to my memories. It did.

I must comment on this cover because I'm not quite sure what's going on with this horse. I guess he's supposed to be an Appaloosa (though there are none in the book), but he looks like he has some sort of really awful disease all over his face and neck. Or someone took a spongy brush, dipped it in white paint, and dabbed it all over him. Then these two girls tacked him up, sat next to him on a fence, and laughed at him, ha ha ha! And there's a goat.

Back in the Saddle

Silver Creek riding camp is a dream come true for best friends Katie and Jenna - they can ride all summer long and meet other girls who love horses, like their tentmate Melissa. But their biggest hurdle is getting to know Sharon, who's adjusting to life after a tragic accident. Will she ever ride again? She's come to Silver Creek to find out, but it's going to take some really good friends to get her back in the saddle again. But Kaite, Jenna, and Melissa won't give up trying!
Okay, so here's the deal. This book introduces us to our four main character: Jenna, Katie and Melissa, who are all 12/13, and Sharon, who is 14. They've all packed off to attend riding camp at Silver Creek, a stable in rural New York, and they are all pretty unhappy about this situation for varying reasons.

We are first introduced to Melissa, who has just moved to New York from Baltimore following her parent's divorce. She is always bopping around in Orioles gear, something that endeared these books to me when I was going through my baseball phase. She is used to riding at this big fancy barn in Maryland, and attending a big fancy riding camp every summer where she has her own room and bathroom, featuring a bath tub with clawed feet. Unfortunately for her she missed the deadline to sign up in the craziness of moving and divorce issues, so it's off to Silver Creek, which is shall we say a bit more...rustic. As in the campers stay in army tents, they have to walk outside to get to the bathroom, the horses don't have brass nameplates outside their doors, and no bathtubs with feet. Such a tragedy. Another thing you need to know about Melissa is that she's black and very aware of it. She's an active and talent competitor in a sport saturated with rich white girls, so I really don't blame her for being hyper aware of racism, though sometimes its injection into the plot feels a bit like "required social issue" time or something like that. Oh well.

Anyway, we are next introduced to Jenna, a short, athletic and talented rider who is really sad. She was just about to buy her own horse, you see, an amazing Thoroughbred named Turbo who has amazing potential as a jumper that she was planning to enter in the Triple Crown. Yeah, anyway. She had scrimped and saved for untold amounts of time to buy the horse with the knowledge that her parents were going to put up half when, at the last minute, they inform her they won't be able to afford it. Their restaurant is doing poorly, and Jenna's younger sister, Allegra, is retarded, which means they have to pay lots of money to send her to a special school. Hence no horse for Jenna.

Jenna is in the middle of having a total sob fest when her friend, protagonist numero tre, arrives on her bike to offer a candy wrapper in lieu of kleenex, like all good best friends should. Katie is shy and klutzy, but she loves animals, and Jenna finally talked her into taking riding lessons at Silver Creek. She sympathizes with Jenna's sadness but tries to remind her of how much they were looking forward to camp that summer. Jenna is all, piss off. Camp will be completely pointless without Turbo. Forget that, life will be pointless. So we can see where this is going. No, not suicide, but anyway.

Then there's Sharon. We are actually introduced to Sharon in the prologue. Sharon is a champion rider, and totally in love with her champion mare, Cassidy. As the book opens, Sharon and Cassidy are riding back from a field along the road when a drunk driver in a blue pickup happens by and deliberately runs them off the shoulder. Except the truck also hits Cassidy and kills her. Sharon, trapped under Cassidy's body, breaks both of her legs and ends up physically handicapped and has to wear leg braces. She is unbelievably traumatized by this experience. Losing Cassidy is devastating, and now she has to deal with a disability, and people's reactions to it, constantly. She is pretty sour about this, especially because she also is no longer anywhere near the rider she used to be. She is convinced to ride in physical therapy where she meets Claire, a volunteer who is also the daughter of Silver Creek's owner (and a former member of the USET or something like that). Claire convinces Sharon to go to Silver Creek's camp, hoping it will do her good, but Sharon is not so fond of this idea.

So. Here we have a girl who is sensitive about her race and angry that she's not at her high class riding camp, one who is pissed at the world because she didn't get to buy pretty pony, and one who is still trying to cope with losing a horse and freedom of physical mobility, plus one who is a whiny sissy pants. And oh yeah, they are all going to be in the same tent this summer. Sounds like a wonderful combination.

And it starts out grand. Melissa, who brings her laptop to camp (and seeing as this book was written in 1994, it must have been the size of a microwave with a battery life of 4 minutes), decides to leave a box of Cracker Jack on the pillows of all the cots as a welcoming gift. Except she falls asleep and the farm's goat eats all the candy, slobbering all over the pillows. When Jenna and Katie arrive, they find this to be pretty disturbing. Then Jenna slips in goat turds and falls in them, making her Melissa's best friend.

They have a conversation about how some horses will only fuck horses of a certain color, which makes Melissa get all huffy because she is also discriminated against because of her color. See what I mean by awkward social commentary? I appreciate that in this series because, unlike say, the TB series, things like discrimination are brought up and discussed. Mandy was disabled and black, but no one ever recoiled or treated her poorly. No one ever recoiled from her disability in TB world, no siree. And though race exists in TB world, and Saddle Club world, we are all apparently a happily multi-cultural nation. Therefore, it's interesting to see an author acknowledge that racism exists in America, even among children, and have all of her characters deal with it. But really, horses fucking? We could have done better than that.

Anyway, the girls are already yelling at each other when Sharon shows up. This quiets this down because none of them have any idea how to react to Sharon's obvious disability, and Sharon already hates them for acting awkward. Melissa, who has competed against Sharon, asks if Cassidy is at the camp too, and Sharon gets all mad and tells her no without any explanation. Everyone is perplexed, then they all go to the lodge for orientation.

Here we officially meet Rose, the farm's owner, and Claire, aforementioned rider/instructor. We learn the rules of the camp. Sharon sits all by herself and is completely angry, Melissa and Jenna bicker, Katie tries to make peace, and Jenna shoots death rays out of her eyes at everything because she's still mad about Turbo. Then they go out and ride in "try outs" so they can be placed in classes by skill. Sharon has trouble even mounting up, and is completely embarrassed by her inablity to ride as gracefully as she used to.

Then are horse assignments and class assignments. No one is happy with them and everyone keeps bugging Claire about it at dinner. Jenna is really pissed because Melissa was assigned the horse that she normally rides, Foxy. Melissa is upset because she doesn't want Jenna to hate her. Katie is upset because she isn't in Jenna's class. And Sharon is upset because she sucks at riding. Claire tells them all to shut up, and then asks Sharon if she'd like to help her train a green and unruly young filly. Sharon has experience breaking horses, and Claire is incredibly busy, so she thinks it will make everyone happy. But Sharon thinks she's getting pity and refuses. Okay, fun stuff.

Bickering continues after dinner, where we meet Daniel (who is actually Danielle but dropped the "le" because she got tired of writing the extra letters) their tent supervisor or something. At this point they learn that they have all earned the nickname the "Thoroughbrats," a play on their tent's real name the Thoroughbreds. This is really bad because, like all camp books everywhere, this camp has a point system and so far their tent is losing. What will they do?

Play charades! Only not. Melissa and Katie get bored and wander over to where Claire is working with Luna, the unruly filly. Luna was abused or some such thing by her previous owners and is all stubborn and asinine. Claire gives up on the session and tells Melissa and Katie just what happened to Sharon and Cassidy. Suddenly Sharon's attitude seems to make a bit more sense. Claire also expresses how sorry she is that Sharon doesn't want to work with Luna. Melissa and Katie decide they'll have to do something about this whole situation, they just don't know what. Katie tries to get Sharon to open up to her later that day, but Sharon refuses. She's too busy reading her old journal that she started keeping after the accident and trying unsuccessfully to come to terms with her loss.

Meanwhile, Jenna and Melissa still completely hate each other. They are in their lesson and basically having a cat fight via equine proxy, so Claire sends them out of the ring to work it out. There, Melissa accuses Jenna of being racist. Jenna is flabbergasted and tells Melissa that she hates her for being a stuck-up riding princess and indirectly causing her to fall in goat turds, not because she's black. Melissa is relieved and they race off into the trees. Problem solved.

Now that Katie, Melissa, and Jenna are all friends, they can focus on bringing Sharon over to the darkside. Jenna is informed about Sharon's accident and in a botched attempt to bond, compares the loss of Cassidy to the loss of Turbo. Big mistake. Then Katie tries, and tells Sharon that Claire basically called Sharon a pussy for not working with Luna. This is completely untrue, but it pisses Sharon off enough to the point where she is eventually going to start working with Luna. No surprise. Then everyone goes on an overnight trailride and the horse Katie is riding spooks when he sees a snake. Katie is thrown and almost falls off a mountain except Sharon pulls her to safety. Then she tells Katie its okay to ride horses just for the thrill of it and not to win ribbons. Therefore they bond and Sharon realizes she needs to listen to her own advice. Who knew.

Now we get some scenes of Sharon sitting with Luna in her stall and trying to lunge her unsuccessfully. Then Jenna's younger sister comes for a visit. She's supposed to be mentally retarded, but she speaks and acts as I assume a normal 8 year old would, so I feel something is fishy here. We are presented with a mentally retarded character, a ballsy move, but there is no actual indication that she's disabled other than the stated description. Me thinks the author dropped the ball here. Anyway, Allegra asks Jenna if she's mad, and Jenna says no, why would she be mad? But she feels weird so she goes to watch Sharon work Luna. She ends up opening up to Sharon, and it turns out she is mad at Allegra. She blames her for not being able to afford Turbo. Sharon listens sympathetically and suggests that really, it's an understandable human reaction and doesn't make Jenna a bad person. She knows her family members probably resent the sacrifices they've had to make because of her accident. She suggests Jenna call Allegra and speak to her honestly, especially since she thinks Allegra probably already know what's going on. Jenna agrees, and calls her sister. She admits her feelings, but says she still loves her. Allegra tells Jenna they're best friends and all is well. Then Silver Creek buys Turbo so Jenna can ride him there. Huzzah again.

Now for the grand finale. Sharon, after saving Katie's life and saving Jenna from insanity, is still trapped in her own emotional hell. She is having violent nightmares, and her tentmates finally confront her about it. They find out she has a tape of her and Cassidy at their last show with her, so they break into Rose's office to watch it together. Sharon is terrified, but as she watches she has a huge emotional catharsis and is finally able to mourn for Cassidy. She also realizes that she now has real friends, and she won't be alone. This scene might sound sappy, but it was actually incredibly well written. It made me cry, guys. Seriously.

After all this, Sharon takes Luna out one last time on the lunge line. The session goes miserably again, so Sharon gives up and just stares at the filly. To her surprise, Luna approaches her and appears to accept her, then Sharon gets her to walk in a circle on the lunge line. All is well in the world.

I'm not sure if my review really does this book any justice. It's incredibly well-written. The dialog is smart and hilarious. For example, during orientation Rose decides to quiz one of the youngest campers:
"Well Julie," Rose said, "what would you think the very first thing an average camper would do here at Silver Creek to start an average camper day?"

Julie's eyes darted around nervously, "Um, pee?"

Perhaps out of context it's not funny, but I'd forgotten about this line and it made me burst out laughing. There are other gems in there, as well as cussing, and some of the physical descriptions of the scenery are simply beautiful i.e.:
"She liked sitting out here in the early evening light, the sun stretching out long copper arms as if it were trying to hang on to the edge of the world."
And there is the aforementioned brutal and honest treatment of racism and discrimination people face if they are mentally or physically handicapped. And, with the exception of some of the discussions of racism, most of this manages to come off without sounding in any way preachy. Characters also have to overcome their own inner demons. Jenna's relationship with her sister, and her anger at her, is a really complex emotional issue, and the answer is just as complex: it's okay to be angry at people you love, even if they've done nothing wrong. The bigger message is: disabled people are people too! And treating them like human beings mean admitting when they make you upset.

Similarly, after Sharon has her big cry about Cassidy she's not maggically over it. She's still deeply, deeply sad, but what's happened is that she's come to terms with her grief and can now live through it in a healthy manner. She also comes to terms with the fact that, even if she recovers the full use of her leg, she will never be the same girl she was before, and she has to stop striving for that impossible goal and learn to be okay with who she is right now. That's college level psychology right there. Seriously. Instead of falling back on tired horse series tropes the issues brought to light are complex and believable, and watching the characters deal with them is a delight. Also there is a Beavis and Butthead reference. Who could not appreciate that? Not to mention the fact that the characters go to the bathroom and mention having their periods, and zits. Jesus Christ, this is reality overload.

All the witty dialog and pop culture references shouldn't be a surprise, though. Turns out Beth Kincaid is actually a pen name for K. A. Applegate of Animorphs fame. If anyone is looking for a good read, Animorphs is probably one of the best children's series ever written. Really, it's so dark and complex it's basically a sci-fi masterpiece and could easily be adapted and marketed to adults. Literally. I read all of them until about the late 20s, which I learned yesterday is when Applegate stopped writing them herself. So I suppose my opinion that the quality declined was actually a reflection of tangible circumstances. She also wrote a really great series of books called Making Out (dumb title, I know) that was aimed at young adults and featured the same complex characters and smart writing as Animorphs except it was less dark and less believable, which says a lot because none of the Making Out characters turned into animals to fight aliens and had an alien best friend. Anyway, who knew Applegate knew so much about horses. Though the amazing characters are the stars of this short-lived series, all the horse information is fairly accurate. Normally I could never enjoy horse books where the equine stuff was only a supporting actor, but the writing here is so phenomenal that it really doesn't matter. You can get copies of all three books in the series for one cent on amazon.com, and I highly recommend it. You will not be disappointed.


Molly (formerly anonymous) said...

Yeah, so I'm going to take this as a personal shout-out, seeing as I just mentioned these books a couple of posts ago (did not know there was a request thread. Actually, it was probably better that I didn't know about it earlier. Otherwise I would've had a list as long as my arm...however, you've already covered most of my favorites).

These books really do hold up. There are certain little things that I enjoy - the little camper you quoted in there being one of them!

And, oh god, the scene with the video. I sob every goddamn time. My own horse died two years ago (he was much older than Cass, and long retired due to leg problems, but it was absolutely devastating) and I wrote a list of things I miss about Alf. Looking back, I'm pretty sure I pinched that idea from Sharon's Things I Miss About Cassidy list. And you know...it helped.

One last thing I loved about this book - look really closely at the cover. Those two girls off in the distance are Katie and Sharon. Notice the braid on one, the leg braces and red hair on the other. It's a great little detail.

Anonymous said...

i'll have to drag out my copies of this series because i don't remember them being this exceptional. but then again, i first read them when i was at riding camp (which surprisingly, was absolutely nothing like horse camp in all these books...no point system for one) so i was slightly distracted. though i do remember enjoying them enough that i "forgot" to return them to the camp library.

Anonymous said...

Oh my!! I lovvvved the Animorphs, even more than Thoroughbred-- I have every single book, its like more than sixty. Those books were awesome. I really want to read these ones!! I had no idea she wrote horse books

Anonymous said...

You totally just ble my mind about K.A. Applegate being Beth Kincaid. I'm seriously going to tell everyone I know about this!!

I was really surprised to see this review. I got this book ages ago and really enjoyed it. Not sure if I still have it but I might. Thanks for reminding me how good it was!