Jul 24, 2008

Time for a Little Cross-Dressing Fun So She Can Race Her Dreams

To Race A Dream
By Deborah Savage
Published 1994

So believe it or not, this isn’t a book from my childhood, and although its publishing date roughly fits the time when I was deeply engrossed in the Saddle Club world and enjoying Thoroughbred dreams, I never read this one. Maybe it’s because I never knew it existed, at least not until now. A few weeks ago, I was at the public library for the first time in a dog’s age. And stumbled across this book on the spinning rack of paperbacks, and figured “What the hell.” Before I begin though, I really have to inform readers of this blog that this book was written by some chick who was like the great-granddaughter of M.W. Savage – so it’s no wonder that Mr. Savage amounts pretty much to Godhood here. Granted, he might have been a very generous person, and I suppose his descendants would have known about him best, but holy shit, the man can literally do no wrong within these pages, and is probably more saintly than Jesus Christ. Un-believe-able!

He was the fastest horse on earth… and she would so anything to race him.
Theo has a secret dream – to be a great jockey. But in 1906, the very idea of a girl racing horses is unthinkable. Theo’s parents would never allow it.

Then Theo’s sister, Claudia, becomes very ill. With her family distracted, Theo seizes her chance. She passes herself off as a boy and gets a job on the neighboring horse farm. Soon she is given the opportunity of a lifetime: to drive the best race horses in the country—including the legendary Dan Patch, a magnificent stallion who has broken the world record for harness racing.

In order to live out her dreams, Theo will have to live a lie. But how long can she keep pretending.
How … National Velvet-ish. Girl passes herself off as a boy to work with horses. And apparently almost everyone around her is too fucking dumb to figure it out. Sweet! And I really think that the use of the phrase “to be a great jockey” is something of a misnomer. Jockey would imply that one rides a horse, although the dictionary does indicate that one could drive a horse. However, I’d imagine that the harness would want to make a very clear distinction that they are drivers as opposed to jockeys. Perhaps it’s splitting hairs, and maybe “to be a great jockey” sounded better than “to be a great driver” but it’s like apples and oranges. Or maybe I’m just too picky.

Needless to say, our story begins at the turn of the 20th Century (give or take a few years) with our disgruntled heroine, Theodora, bitching about the unfairness of life as she traipses off into the Minnesota countryside. It seems that life is unfair because Theodora (I fucking hate her fucking nickname of ‘Theo”) has this dream; as dream of horses and harness racing and getting to invade that hallowed sanctum of the International Stock Feed Farm. You see, the International Stock Feed Farm was a big deal for this little Minnesota town that used to be called Hamilton. But then a rich dude by the name of Marion Willis Savage bought a horse, and that horse made history, and everyone in the town decided to orally pleasure the guy (in the figurative sense) and rename the whole blooming town after him. And it’s Theodora’s dream to get to this wonderful farm, and see the place for herself. That, and drive the harness horses.

But anyway, life just isn’t fair, according to her. As it turns out, she was going to visit the farm on the last day of school, and why she’d even get to win this thing called The English Prize (which is I guess some medal for being able to write a good story in English class) but now it’s all going to pot because of Claudia, her older sister. Theodora’s family is not your normal family of the early 1900s. Her mother, Maude is a suffragist, her father, Stevenson, is a lawyer who’s apparently big on equal rights for women, and her sister is an alternate on some big orchestra thing. And because her sister has these big dreams and goals and this whole thing about standing up to men in her own right, and all Theodora wants is horses (which you know is only supposed to last until she discovers boys) she is clearly not the apple of her mama’s eye. And what luck! Somehow, two violinists get sick right at the same time (gee, something they both ate perhaps?) and it seems that Claudia is the only one capable of playing in an upcoming concert. So instead of going to the farm of her dreams and getting the medal for writing, Theodora is bustled off to Minneapolis with her parents to watch her sister perform.

But not before she wishes something truly heinous would happen to Claudia, and wouldn’t you just know it, but after playing amazingly well, Claudia collapses during the concert. And we find that she has polio. Polio is bad juju because the cure for this disease wouldn’t be found for another 82 years, which means Claudia is pretty much screwed. Her parents bring her home, and Theodora’s aunt, Harriet, arrives. Harriet is a doctor, and so she settles in with the family to help take care of Claudia.

Most importantly, because Aunt Harriet isn’t sure if polio is contagious or not, the family pretty much kicks Theodora out of the house during the day, and she’s left to her own devices. While at the general store with her aunt, she runs into Marion Willis Savage, and goes all fangirl on him, and begs him to help get sheepskins for her sister to lie on. He’s nice (c’mon, the bloody book’s written by his great-granddaughter, as if she’d say anything bad about the guy who made the money in her family, pssh!) and says he’ll help. And Theodora practically pisses her pants with joy. And this makes her more determined than ever to be with the horses. Thus, she enlists the help of a schoolmate, a Swedish boy named Carl. Carl is sixteen, so a year older than Theodora, and his family is a big family of poor farmers with bad English skills. That’s not to demean them in anyway, mind you, but it does show the hardship that immigrant families face, especially back in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Carl is smart, Carl wants to be something in life, and Carl wants books. Theodora gives Carl books to read, and then pretty much blackmails him with her dreams – and he helps her get some clothes so she looks like a boy, and off she goes to the International Stock Feed Farm to work as a stablehand running water buckets and cleaning. But what she really wants to do is work with the horses.

Now, Theodora’s matter of disguising herself is to dress up in boy’s clothes, and pin her long hair up under a cap. That’s so so bloody cliché. At least Velvet Brown has the sense to actually cut her hair off, but Theodora only pins it up under a cap. And despite the fact that she’s running around doing any number of chores, including ones that surely must involve bending down to pick something up, her cap never ever falls off her saintly little head. Which begs the question of what kind of a cap is she wearing? Because surely someone would notice that her hat does not sit down firmly on her head, but seems to be held aloft a few inches by the mass of hair underneath it. But they don’t, which means all the men are stupid, and she is smart. Girl power, and all that tripe.

Well, almost all the men, because there’s this old rat-catcher guy who figures out she’s a girl before she even opens her mouth (maybe it’s the way she walks or something) but Carl takes her to see Dan Patch because of the obsessive way that Theodora lusts after the stallion, and she gets to feed him apples, and M.W. Savage asks her name, and she’s a dope and calls herself Theodore Stevens. Which is dumb because her knows her father, and saw her at the general store. So anyway, the long and the short of it is that she keeps working at the farm all day, and then goes home, and sees her sister lying motionless in bed. And tries to give her some water, and succeeds only in soaking her sister, Maude freaks out and Theodora screams at her aunt for coming there and ruining the whole family while her mother screams at her (ah, such familial bliss!)

And it just gets better because Theodora meets up with Carl the next day, and they talk about families, and Carl being observant for a boy, notes that there’s some weird tension between Maude, Stevenson and Harriet when they’re all in a room together. And they go their separate ways when they get to the farm. There, the old rat-catcher guy, Amon Szabo, takes Theodora to the track just when it starts to rain and one of the young horses spooks, and his driver falls out of the sulky. Theodora jumps (I kid you not) into the seat, and grabs the reins. And then there’s this whole mumbo jumbo thing about how she calls out some secret name and the horse stops and everyone shits their pants at how amazing she is, even M.W. Savage. And then it starts to really rain, and Carl and Theodora take refuge in the barn. Only, Theodora hid her clothes by the creek, and when they get there, everything got washed away. Ooops.

Thus chastened, she has to return home, where her mother finds out she’s been masquerading as a boy to work at the horse farm and practically flies into a homicidal rage because damn it, they’ve given her everything so she can be an intelligent, smart young woman with a future and there she is wasting it on horses. Plus, like dude, she’s totally going to ruin the future of the world for women like me and many readers of this blog, by pretending to be a boy. Gasp! So Theodora screams at her mother, her mother screams back, and everyone is unhappy.

And in the midst of this, Carl and his father, Gustav show up. Gustav has found the books that Theodora and her family have lent to Carl, and he thought that Carl stole them. There’s more yelling and fighting, and finally Stevenson convinces Gustav to let Carl go back to school, and gives him another book to read. Only this book is On the Origin of Species, which has always been rather confrontational in terms of religion, even now. And Gustav is like uber-religious. So there’s obviously some forcing his hand there. Bully!

Carl asks Theodora to come to the dance on the Fourth of July, and this leads to the conversation between Aunt Harriet and Theodora about how Harriet had the hots for this guy, and he had similar feelings and proposed to her. But oh no, Harriet has to be a doctor, and there's no way she could possibly be a wife and a mother at the same time because she's got this driven goal of women's rights, and producing children would just discredit her in the world. Anyway, she never says her beau's name, and says that Claudia has to make the same kind of decision ... but oh, she wants to do Theodora's hair for the dance, so that Carl sees her as a young woman. Talk about mixed messages there, Harriet. Honestly!

Theodora does go back to the farm, but she doesn't have to hide her dress anymore because she can leave the house wearing Carl's old clothes. And M.W. Savage says he's going to turn her over to this guy named Bill Turner who can teach her to drive harness horses. But not until after the Fourth of July parade. And then comes the parade, and Gustav brings his wagon to take Claudia, and Carl sits next to Claudia and pays a lot of attention to her, and Theodora practically gnaws her own liver in jealousy. And along comes Dan Patch being driven in the parade, and he remembers her from when she fed him apples, so he practically drools all over her, which gives Mr. Savage a chance to get a really good look at Theodora all dressed up. Oh, and Carl's like totally hiding behind Theodora, just so Mr. Savage won't put two and two together.

It's time for the dance, and Theodora wears a dress her mother wore when she met Stevenson. And Maude, and Harriet and Stevenson all sigh and awwwh over her. And Maude has a headache, but insists that Harriet go with Stevenson to the dance. And there's Carl, and Amelia, the rich banker's daughter is a bitch, and Carl brushes her off. Theodora dances with Carl, and he kisses her. And then she looks at her father, her aunt and her mother on the front porch, and the whole thing hits her like a clue-by-four. Yay! Love triangle!

So Theodora gives Carl a story to read, and then she goes to work with Bill Turner who must be this book's version of crusty old Charlie Burke because he's not talkative, stout, and really old. And he teaches Theodora how to drive this horse named Brown City Lad. And times goes by, and Claudia starts to get better. And she even can sort of walk one day. And Theodora gets pissy at Aunt Harriet again, and screams to her mother how much she hates her, and confronts her about the whole thing between Harriet and Stevenson. Hurrah! And Mumsy Maude doesn't even deny it. Even better!

So anyway, the next day, Carl tells her that he's turning in his notice and won't be working at the farm. Which means that it's her last day there too. And with the help of Amon Szabo, along with a loose stallion, she gets into the sulky pulled by Dan Patch and drives him. Yeah, she just freaking gets in when everyone is busy, and drives the famous race horse. And nobody gets mad afterwards because Mr. Savage tells her he knew she was a girl ever since the day of the parade. So that's the end of Theodora's working at the farm, because she has to quit anyway, and did it with a bang.

And finally, they go to the Minnesota State Fair. Theodora received tickets from Mr. Savage to sit in the grandstands and watch Dan Patch's race. And so her father, Claudia and Carl all get to go along. And Carl told Theodora that he copied the story she gave him, and sent it in to these publisher people who now want her name so they can publish it. And he kisses her again, which makes her older sister and father act and look interested in something else (hahaha) and it's off to the Fair.

At the Fair, they find their seats, and watch as Dan Patch's pacer horses come out onto the track. And there's the big horse himself. And off he goes, pacing along until he breaks his own record, trotting a mile in 1:55. And Theodora is happy, and everyone lives happily ever after.

However, as an interesting side note, that day that Dan Patch trotted a mile in 1:55, the time was record was made unofficial due to the use of a dirt shield by his prompter. Deborah Savage seems to build up the suspense of how amazing this horse was by adding in an afterward that the record was not broken for 20 years. However, perhaps it might have served her better to acknowledge that the record of 1:55 for the mile was unofficial. Otherwise, it just makes the book more fictional than it was by twisting the truth.

Points of Interest:
  • Theodora's mother is an odd bat. She continually tells her daughter not to mess up her clothes, however while she's inside her house, she wears her husband's clothes. Does this not contradict her near-homicidal rage when she finds out that Theodora has been wearing Carl's clothes?
  • Deborah Savage likes to use the word "man's" to indicate clothing and things that women should not be using. For example, she states that Aunt Harriet was carrying a long man's umbrella tucked her her arm. For god's sake, just say it's a long black umbrella. It's not like anyone would mistake it for a frilly parasol!
  • Theodora is stating a new story about a boy with blonde hair and blue eyes and was from Norway, and was adopted by Indians. Holy moly, she turned Carl into a Larry Stu!
  • Also, Theodora is dumb as rocks. For someone who likes horses as much as she does, mustangs do not win the freaking Kentucky Derby.
So that's To Race A Dream. And I can't get this thing back to the library fast enough. I'll have to see what else there is to read. I've put book #2 of the Golden Filly series on request for an inter-library loan and it's on its way.

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