Jul 13, 2008

If Wishes Were Horses, Nobody Would Ever Walk Again

And now that it seems that my Happy Fun Fire Time Adventure™ is over, and Mitch has been returned to the blissful comforts of home after having been evacuated in the middle of the night nearly two weeks ago (hey, it's drama right out of Melanie's Last Ride!) I have another book review. I know, I know, I swore it would be Shadow Horse, and that's read, and everything, but I'm just having the damnedest time writing the bloody review. I think it's because I sort of liked the book, and am now having trouble even trying to rip it to shreds, but it can't write nice either. It's slow going. So I picked up an old favorite at the library the other day, and thought I'd run a fast review on that since it's a quick and easy read, and the end of the book meshes so well with our Happy Fun Time Fire Adventure™ that it just seems more appropriate. Anyway... enjoy!

If Wishes Were Horses
by Jean Slaughter Doty
Published: October 1984

I grew up with Jean Slaughter Doty books; they had ponies in them, so of course from a very early age, those were the books my parents found at the library for me. Now that I think about it, looking back, I think my parents were trying to prepare me for the future realization that not everything was cookies and cream with horses. Jean Slaughter Doty wrote books that were realistic, brutally frank and blunt at times, without much of the sunshine and rainbows and golden butterfly farts from Magikal Gypsy Vanner asses that's often so prevalent in other horse books. Oh, don't get me wrong, there is a sprinkling of sunshine and rainbows because good things happen, but at the same time, Doty's books have bad things that happen too. Because that's just a fact of life. And sometimes, there is no happily ever after.

I've always really loved the cover of If Wishes Were Horses (the hardback at least, it's the only copy I've ever seen, so I don't know if there are different covers) because it was just very well done. It sort of had a watercolor feel to it; like paint daubs in Photoshop, which I always liked. The detail is there, but it's not such needle-sharp detail that it spoils the big picture; and the two little chestnut fillies running on the cover around the two girls is just very balanced and cute. They're such teeny-tiny foals, but I love their color and chrome. They're how I imagine Secretariat looked as a baby, only gallon-sized rather than pint-sized.
Thirteen-year-old Stephany Reed has grown up on Thunder Rock Farm, where for many years her family has bred and raised Thoroughbred racehorses. And in the last few months since her father's death, she and her older sister, Camilla, have kept the farm going on their own.

Caring for the broodmares and stallions and the newborn foals is hard work but satisfying, and the two girls begin to hope that they will be able to pay off the debts that threaten Thunder Rock's future. Then suddenly, disaster strikes, endangering the very lives of the horses they love...
My only gripe is that Doty seems to have gone the Mary Sue route, and chosen the more (shall we say) exotic pronunciation of Stephanie and Camilla has a very high-minded name, but I guess the Reeds could have gotten away with it being monied-rich and all. But other than that, I've got no issues. It's not sunshine and rainbows and magikal butterfly farts -- they've got to pay off their debts or it's bye-bye "happily ever after."

Set in the Virginia countryside, If Wishes Were Horses begins on a dark stormy night at 3 A.M when Stephany awakens in the barn office at a phone call from Jimmy Connor, the next door neighbor. As an interesting bit of back story, Jimmy grew up with beef cattle, but decided horses were a lot cooler (and probably didn't shit and eat as much) than cattle, so the minute his folks took off for that big retirement place everyone goes to (Arizona, who'da thunk... why do people retire to Arizona anyway? It's hot there in the summer.) Jimmy ditched the critters that moo and picked up critters that neighed. So he's a racehorse trainer, and after giving Stephany some grief about her older sister being at a dance and not at home, he demands a horse. And it's funny how he demands it, so I'll quote it:
"Then you have to help me. I need a horse. Right away."

I sighed. "Jimmy, you know we've got all kinds of horses. What particular horse have you got in mind? What kind of a horse is a three-o'clock-in-the-morning horse?"

"The mare. The tall gray one with the ears."
That mare turns out to be Rosie, and we're treated to a trip down Memory Lane with Stephany. Rosie, being registered as Roses Red, with Bold Ruler on top, and Mahmoud on the bottom, you'd think she'd be a hell of a racehorse. But nah, she can't outrun a fat man going downhill, and thus becomes the perfect playtoy for two girls growing up on a racehorse farm, when they've been forbidden from going near the racehorses. That bit always kind of struck me as surprising, maybe because I got used to the Thoroughbred series afterwards where kids were expected to pitch in and help, but looking back, maybe it makes sense -- the racehorses were the business, and Rosie was the toy.

So anyway, Jimmy needs Rosie for some mysterious errand, and Stephany says she'll have her ready as soon as he runs his van over. She then goes to look in on the three mares in foal, two outside mares -- one being a daughter of Secretariat -- and their Princequillo mare, Pamela who is the only mare they own that's in foal. And then she wraps Rosie's legs, while giving us another trip down Memory Lane about how everything went to shit so easily. That back when both the Reed parents were alive, everything was swell -- they were rich, they were happy, their horses were selling. And then Mumsy kicked the bucket without warning, and Dear Daddy sort of lost the will to live, so the girls closed down the house as more of their servants were leaving, and eventually everything started going to pot in a social sense. But hey, as long as they had the horses, life was jolly, because they never failed to take care of the horses, even if there was dust a foot thick on the stairway banisters.

Well, as long as they were rich too. But when that started tickling away, because Daddy Dear, started selling some of the best broodmares cheap, and sending other mares to crapass studs who couldn't produce their way out of a feed bag, which sort of then means that the foals were shit, so nobody really wanted to buy them. So of course the farm hit some financial upheaval. And then they got lucky with a racehorse they named Glory Now, who was out of the super mare, Pamela, but had a shitass sire. And despite this, he managed to look impressive enough that Mr. Reed decides to hold on to him, thinking they'll make the Derby with him.

We then continue our trip down Stephany's Memory Lane with the saga of Glory Now, who managed to pull a Smarty Jones (or a Bold Ruler) and nearly kill himself before he even made it into racing. So he had to sit out most of the big two-year-old races, but managed to look impressive enough in slow workouts that on slow news days when there was nothing to write about, the farm got some publicity. And Glory Now is apparently a poser, a wanna-be celebrity who looked hot in the morning, but threw a clunker in the afternoon. Nevertheless, he manages to win his maiden race at first asking, beating a bunch of worn-out tired nobodies. But then Jimmy tells Cam and Stephany that "that fancy colt can't run fast enough to keep himself warm" and warns the girls that he needs to tell their dad that Glory Now is a bunch of junk (can we say overhyped!) Glory Now solves the problem neatly by getting one of those 24-hour colic issues that is resolved thanks to quick intervention of the vets, but it's all Jimmy needs to send the colt back to the farm, with the possiblity of "racing next year." (You know, the kind of excuses that racehorse owners these days give for retiring their horses as stallion prospects -- Doty was amazingly ahead of her time!)

So then Things Just Get Worse.™ Papa Reed hasn't sent many -- if any -- mares to any stallions, so the farm is looking at a dry year, and Cam decides not to go back to college so she can stay and run the farm. The farm continues to slide, and Cam even has to take a part-time job. Glory Now looks good, and Dad Reed continues to hold out hope. But then his heart gives out, and the girls are left orphans with a farm, and horses, and mounting debts. So much for life insurance!

And thus, we return to the present, when Jimmy arrives with his van, and whisks Rosie off on her mysterious middle-of-the-early-morning journey, and Stephany goes to check on the mares only to realize that "Oh shit!" the chestnut mare is foaling! And she's all alone. But then Cam arrives, and the girls get to work. In Doty's blunt way, she details what's going on with the foal, and doesn't really mince words. Yes, they have to stick their arm up the back end of the mare, she's blunt and honest about that. But anyway, it turns out the mare is having twins! What! Nobody bothered to y'know, ultrasound her or palpate her before she arrived at the farm? I really kind of blame the owners there, rather than Cam or Stephany, and I suppose it's entirely possible that even with ultrasound, one wouldn't know the mare was carrying twins. But the girls foal her out; pretty graphically detailed birth scene from Doty (the only other one I remember her writing about was Mokey foaling in Winter Pony) and both foals are born. One filly is quickly on her feet, but the weaker one seems to have flipped the proverbial bird at the world, and is just lying there, trying to die or something. It's not really sunshine and rainbows for the two girls because it turns out the other two mares are also foaling, and the brown mare is freaked out at her foal. Bully! So they resort to restraining her long enough to get her foal to nurse, and then it's back to the twin foals to try and get the weaker one to nurse. The weaker foal is kind of having a rough life, but Stephany feeds her, and she goes to sleep, but Stephany freaks out like ninja thinking she was dead.

The vet finally comes, and everyone is OK, although Cam has to report that she called the mare's owners who were really really pissed off that she had twins, and felt that the weaker one should have died. Well, clearly those absentee owners are more concerned about the money (bit of advice for them: Make sure the mare's next foal is not part of a twin-set, mmkay.) But the girls have a chance to relax, and Cam tells Stephany about the dance, and her sort-of-boyfriend Cliff. Cliff is apparently your typical young wealthy scion; fast cars, good-looking and shallow. And he wants to shag Cam. But his selfishness pisses her off, and she pretty much tries to ditch the box of orchids he sends. But Cam shouldn't get too mad at him, who knows, she might need him in the future.

As it turns out, the bank has sent a final warning. Foreclosure is imminent. And it's not enough that they're taking the farm too; the horses are all going to go bye-bye too. So Camilla heads to the bank. The banker is a long-time friend of their father, surely he'll understand! Won't he? (Or is he going to make Cam doing something really sleezy in exchange?) And well, Mr. Banker is a douchebag. Really. I mean, he was all happy to party with the family when they threw their pre-yearling sales shindings, and sit in their box at the racetrack during big races, but now that they're poor ... he's gonna fugdabouit, and demand they pay up ... OR ELSE!

And then the suits come; the people from the bank. And poor Stephany is home alone for it. And they're rich, and don't want to walk in the mud. So they act cold, and mean and stuff. Boo! And poor Stephany is home alone again two days later when the bloodstock agents arrive. But at least these guys aren't jerks, they walk in the mud, and look at the twin fillies and act all shiny and happy. But they do of course, appraise the value of the Thunder Rock horses, and then point out that one is missing! Gasp! It's Rosie, and wherever can she be? Luckily, Stephany remembers a Christmas morning a few years ago, and sneers at the bloodstock agents, because Rosie is belongs to the girls, and not the farm, so therefore, she can keep Rosie. Of course, the bloodstock guys aren't jerks, so they seem nice about this, and one man says it's nice if they could keep her, since they're losing everything else.

Cam goes off to see the family attorney, and it seems that Mr. Lawyer is kind of skeevy because he tries to feel Cam up each chance he gets during this lunch meeting (and him a married man!) and Cam nearly takes his hand off before she tells him to get lost. But good things happen because Rosie is home, and Cam and Jimmy go off to dinner. But good things do not last, because the fire alarm goes ape-shit, and Stephany is home alone. Woe! She has to get the mares out of the barn, and other horses too. Glory Now tries to rip her face off, and she gets his door open, and moves along. She gets the farm's last stallion out, and he tears off into the night. And at last the fire engine arrives, and Cam and Jimmy.

And because this is not a sunshine and rainbows book, four horses have died from smoke inhalation, and one of them turns out to be Glory Now. Stephany goes off to look for Rondelay, the stallion, and finds that he got into the broodmare pasture, so he's clearly in seventh heaven with his harem. Jimmy takes in the horses, and has paid special attention to Rosie. The bank sends a fire inspector and an insurance agent who practically accuse Stephany of smoking in the hay, and that it was all a set-up. Cam goes ballistic on them, and thus they must sheepishly admit that the fire started in the tack room, and could thus be ruled out as an accident.

Cliff calls, and tries to get some loving from Cam by sweeping her off to an island in the Caribbean. She tells him to fuck off in a nice way, and goes back to work. The broodmare barn is reopened, and Dr. Bailey, the vet, comes to check horses, and tell the girls that he's bought the twin fillies. And the bank sale happens, and horses are sold. Good-bye, farewell, no happily ever afters. And Cam sends Stephany out on a ride with Rosie, and Stephany brings her over to Jimmy's barn where she will now live.

The girls get an apartment in town, Stephany gets a job working with Jimmy's yearlings, and life goes on. And then at last, a brief bit of wonderful news! It seems that an exceptional racehorse by Northern Dancer was recently killed following his syndication in Europe. He went nuts on the plane, and they had to put him down. And Jimmy reveals that he had connections with the colt's syndicate, and they needed a test mare for him. And thus, we learn of his mysterious reason for taking Rosie on a journey. And the best news is, she's in foal! Hurrah! And Cam and Jimmy leave the resturant holding hands, double hurrah!

Points of Interest:
  • Doty seems to namedrop a lot with famous racehorses. Thunder Rock is foaling out a Secretariat daughter, they own a daughter of Princequillo, Rosie has Bold Ruler anfd Mahmoud in her pedigree, Rosie was bred to a son of Northern Dancer, Rondelay is a son of Round Table, and there's a yearling son of Sir Ivor on the property.
  • Cam and Stephany really economize when they're forced to. They close up all of the barns on the property except for the main one. They live in small maid's rooms off the kitchen, and let the rest of the house go.
  • Rosie has floppy ears and makes popping noises with her lips. I think that's cute. An old arthritic mare at our barn flaps her lower lip which is really droopy, and makes popping noises.
  • There's a major emphasis on the fact that Thunder Rock is a Thoroughbred breeding farm, and that like many farms that breed to race, while they might start yearlings under saddle there, the majority of the training takes place at the race track. Which is very typical of the racing world.
  • Thunder Rock's silks are blue and white. And the farm is in Virginia. Hmm. Meadow Stable, anyone? The way Cam took over running the place does remind me of the way Penny Chenery took over running Meadow Stable from her ailing father.
  • Doty seems to make a point that Glory Now is absolutely a morning glory horse; that he runs amazingly well in the mornings, but can't make up the ground in the afternoons. And that one personal unrealistically believes in him, but everyone else is more practical.
  • At least Glory Now is a media hype, and Doty isn't afraid to make him into a pathetic racehorse.
So there we have If Wishes Were Horses. I've always loved the book. Maybe because it wasn't sunshines and rainbows and butterflies. Yeah, there was a barn fire, and yeah, the bank foreclosed on the farm and the two girls lost everything -- their parents, and their home and their horses -- but they still had each other, and it looks like they have Jimmy (well, Cam does anyway) and Rosie, and Rosie's going to have a once-in-a-lifetime foal. It's not really a happy ending because a happy ending would have somehow managed to keep the girls on the farm, but it's not a sad ending either. It's life, that life has good days, and bad days, and life goes on, no matter what happens.

So now, I'll try and work on the review for Shadow Horse, and then finally maybe I'll go back to Thoroughbred. But maybe one of the NewGen books rather than an Ashleigh book for now.


Molly (formerly anonymous) said...

I remember this one from when I was a kid, vaguely. I always wanted to find it again, but it's such a freaking common title, I couldn't. Now that I know who wrote it, I should try and find it again.

Anonymous said...

A horse by Northern Dancer! How rare! Only 75% of racehorses today are related to the Dancer line in some way.

Haha. This sounds like an over-busy piece of crap, but at least the girls somewhat tried to do something, unlike in 'Wonder's Yearling' when Samantha and Ashleigh were basically "This is not jolly good, mates! Townsend Acres is dying, we must sob!"

Anonymous said...

The only book I read by this author, the only one I found... Was The Monday Horses.

To this day I still pick up the book and read it at random intervals, to this day I still think about the deep and heavy impact her story left on me about horse showing and the behind the scenes look into it. I sometimes spent hours debating with my instructor about the moral issues behind it. I love the author and her storytelling. I need to look into it.