Oct 11, 2008

A British take on the American West

The Horses of Half Moon Ranch
Book 1: Wild Horses
by Jenny Oldfield
Published: 1999, 2008

I am typically not a huge fan of Western horse books. For instance, as much as I always loved the movie My Friend Flicka, the novel has sat untouched on my bookshelf ever since I received it as a gift...something like ten years ago. I can't really get into the Phantom Stallion (sorry, Monique!), and Joanna Campbell's attempt at wild horses and Westerners in The Wild Mustang is one of those moments in my life I sort of forgot about (case in point: I had to go to the Master List to remind myself of that title...it's just not something that I really click with). So when I was asked to review this series, which apparently isn't a new series, just republished for American audiences, I seriously wondered if it was going to keep my attention.

Lucky me the first book in the series, Wild Horses, is 153 pages. I can do 153 pages. Of course, the real test was ahead. Could I stand the characters, plot, and most likely accidental mistakes inherent in a British author writing about Americans in Colorado?
Kirstie Scott lives for horses. She is leading a horse trek through Miners' Ridge when a sudden storm causes a landslide. She is trapped alone in Dead Man's Canyon with a herd of wild horses whose leader -- a proud stallion -- has been hurt by falling rocks. Cold, wet, and alone in the gathering storm -- can she find a way out and help the injured stallion?
The summary takes us through about the first quarter of the book. Kirstie actually doesn't spend the entire novel in Dead Man's Canyon. In fact, she gets out of the canyon in the third chapter. Besides this, and the obvious point that leaders of wild horses are almost always proud stallions, the summary gets it right. For the first three chapters, anyway.

So. Our brave heroine for this post is Kirstie Scott, a 13 year-old blond girl who loves horses. She's got an older brother (18 year-old Matt), a mouthy best friend (Lisa), a single mother (Sandy), a wayward father who abandoned them (name not important), a hunky stable hand (19 year-old Charlie, who is tanned, and this does not escape the notice of anyone), and a smattering of other minor characters and random guests because Half Moon Ranch is a dude ranch. Kirstie used to live in Denver before her father ran away, leaving her mother no option but to move back in with her parents. Kirstie's grandparents died relatively quickly afterward, giving Sandy free rein to do whatever she wanted with the ranch. So she converted it from a working ranch to a dude ranch, and their operations are recently in full swing.

The book starts off with Kirstie and Charlie leading the dudes (this is what the cooler Westerners call their less cool Easterner guests, which is almost always derogatory and implied to be synonymous with "moron") along a trail ride. The dudes are nervous about this, because they do not trust their horses and it looks like rain. One dude is outright bullying his horse around, like only a stupid Easterner...I mean dude...would. While Charlie goes back to push this guy into line, Kirstie leads the group up to the canyon, where they stumble across a herd of horses. It starts to rain, just when the dude who wants to bully his horse more than trust it does something completely predictable and the horse bolts up a ridge, causing a landslide that cuts Kirstie off from the group and injures the black stallion that leads the wild herd.

Kirstie, being a heroine in a horse story, feels the urge to assist the stallion. So she pulls the rocks off of him and tends to his injured left leg. Now, granted, I was ready for some Joanna Campbell shenanigans reminiscent to The Wild Mustang. I was waiting for the stallion to do something minor, like snort or prance, in an attempt to be threatening. Jenny Oldfield thankfully does not do this. Jenny's stallion kicks and freaks out, not at all thrilled with this human trying to help. But help Kirstie does, and somehow gets a halter on him so she can encourage him to stand. I don't know how logical that is, given that he's wild and a stallion, but there you have it.

Meanwhile everyone else has gone home and Charlie comes back to tell Kirstie that he called her mom and she wants him to get Kirstie out of there. Like...I thought that was the original plan. Get Kirstie out of the canyon. Obviously. The stallion would come second to getting the girl out of a dangerous situation. Whatever. They get Kirstie out by...informing her that she can pick her way up the ravine wall in a careful manner, which she does with her horse, Lucky. And they are free of the canyon, just like that. Wow, that took remarkably little effort. I was expecting more dramatics.

Anyway, everyone goes home and they wait for the vet to arrive so they can go back out to the canyon and help the stallion. Vet finally arrives and they go to help the stallion, who has mysteriously disappeared. And the herd has disappeared. And Kirstie draws a blank as to how this happened, while I'm all "Kirstie, how did YOU get out of the damn canyon?" And then they're all, "OH! Yeah, they probably climbed out like you did." And I smack the book against my forehead. But this doesn't explain how the stallion got out, because obviously Kirstie's makeshift bandage isn't magical. Everyone ponders this before doing a collective shrug and going home. Only Kirstie and Lisa are not giving up. They decide to stick it out until morning, so they pitch a tent and camp out by the canyon. Nothing much happens here until morning, when a bobcat comes out of nowhere and spooks the horses before dashing off into the woods. The girls recover from this and move on into the canyon, where they find a narrow passageway behind a waterfall that leads into a mysterious hidden meadow. Think My Friend Flicka, just with a black stallion instead of an albino. That's pretty much what we're looking at here. They find the stallion and discover that someone has put some ointment on his knee. They are amazed by this, and decide to go back and report their findings.

Somehow it's decided that whoever moved the stallion into this meadow is probably a drifter/horse rustler bent on healing the horse before taking him to market to be sold to rodeos. I don't know how they come to this decision (because the meadow is hidden, and people deduce later that drifters probably wouldn't know about a place most locals don't know about), but suddenly it's decided that a rustler obviously did this. Kirstie is crushed. The black stallion is clearly in danger now, so she goes out there again to get the stallion out of there. So she arrives again and discovers that the stallion is still hurt. Like, it's been a day or something since this happened. Of course the stallion is still hurt, Kirstie. No magic ointment is going to heal a knee injury in 24 hours. Take it from someone who speaks from experience.

Figuring that she doesn't have time to lead an injured stallion around as it gets closer to dusk, Kirstie goes home and waits until morning, when she drags Lisa out to the canyon and inadvertently runs into Bob, a drifter and horse rustler. Kirstie singlehandedly stops him from roping a wild mare, and then Lisa blurts out that they're not going to let him steal the stallion. Somewhere in there they had decided Bob was behind all of this, despite absolutely no proof, and then it becomes blatant that Bob has no idea what they're talking about. So now they've really screwed things up. Both girls rush back home to tell everyone what just happened, and realizing that the stallion is in real danger of being found by evil Bob, everyone "cowboy's up" and goes back to the canyon with an earth mover so they can get in there and free the poor thing.

Only when they get there the waterfall is much larger, resulting in Kirstie almost drowning in an attempt to reach the stallion. The stallion accidentally saves her when a natural dam breaks and the flow of water sort of smacks her right into his neck. The stallion drags her to safety, right when this random guy walks up and says something like: "Ha! He saved you! I would have, but I was standing over there." Kirstie is all, "Who are you?" He is Art, the guy who is looking after the stallion. He is also a drifter, but in a good way because his father or grandfather or someone was a local or something. And he remembers how to mix up concoctions that basically double as Neosporin. Kirstie is in awe. He should be famous because he remembers how to make Neosporin out of herbs! But Art is all "Now, no, I don't want people banging on my door for my herbal Neosporin." And Kirstie understands that Art doesn't want to be famous. So he puts more herbal Neosporin on the stallion and tells Kirstie to wait a few days and she does and they release the stallion into the wild. The stallion runs off. The end.

So, it's got some unrealistic points. These sort of stories always tend to, although I do give Jenny points for indicating that the stallion isn't exactly trusting of Kirstie. He just sort of puts up with it, although he does bond with Art. I appreciate this, because at least he didn't bond with Kirstie. The plot also stretches a little thin in areas, especially concerning people being a bit obtuse. If the plot is relying on short-sightedness on the part of characters and readers, I start getting a little critical. Although I find lately that horse books rely mainly on the main character, and in this instance the main character is someone I like. Kirstie is down to earth and full of good intentions. She's helped out by being surrounded by characters who are realistic and don't enable any possible weirdness, which I see a lot with horse books. If a main character isn't going to be likable, she's usually surrounded by a bunch of people who are more than willing to let her jump off the deep end, despite the fact that you know and they know horrible things will be the result. So in the end, I liked this, and it's definitely a quality read for its target audience.

Oddities:

  • "Damn" is said twice. Once by Art who's talking about how he doesn't want people asking him "damn fool questions" about his herbal Neosporin, and again by Kirstie when she's parroting Art. See, this is why I like Kirstie. When we've got a main character in a children's book who swears, you know you're seeing something interesting.
  • Admittedly, I don't know Colorado that well. One or two vacations aside, me and Colorado are not on familiar terms, so I guess Jenny Oldfield did a good job given that she lives in Yorkshire and published this series first in Great Britain. I don't know it's just because she mentions Aspens a lot, or what. But she did a good job.
  • That said, one thing bugged me. She uses the term "head collar" instead of the more American halter. Then she calls the lead rope the "halter rope" and further confuses me.
  • Also, the stallion becomes a mare very briefly at the beginning of the book. It's a common mistake in horse books, but one I have to point out given that in horse books you'd think people would be more aware of the terms stallion, mare, colt, filly, gelding, and horse. I mean, they're the subject, after all.
I also have the second book in the series, Rodeo Rocky, which I intend to review/recap as well. The next two in the series, Johnny Mohawk and Crazy Horse are due in book stores in February 2009. You can visit Sourcebooks for more info on the series and release dates.

1 comment:

Kelsey said...

Yay I was waiting for you to review this series! It almost makes me want to dig them out and read them again.