The Georges and the Jewels
by Jane Smiley
Abby Lovitt has been riding horses for as long as she can remember, but Daddy hasn't let her name a single one. He calls all their geldings George and their mares Jewel and warns her not to get attached. After all, the horses are there on the ranch to be sold, and if they're not gone in six months, they're just a waste of time and hay.
But with all the stress at school (the Big Four--Linda, Mary A., Mary N., Joan--have turned against her) and home (nothing feels right with her brother, Danny, gone), Abby can't help but seek comfort in the Georges and the Jewels, who greet her every day with pricked ears and soft nickers. Except for one: the horse who won't meet her gaze, the horse who bucks her off every chance he gets, the horse Daddy insists she ride and train. Abby knows not to cross her father, but she knows, too, that she can't get back on Ornery George. And suddenly the horses seem like no refuge at all.
The only other book I've read of Jane Smiley's is Horse Heaven, a megalithic opus that I have a vague memory of liking despite what I always felt was a muddled and tedious storyline. I had no real expectations with The Georges and the Jewels, only that I desperately wanted it to be good so I could have another YA horse book to put in my steadily growing stack of good YA horse books. It's such a malnourished little pile of books, you guys. It needs a good writer to love and nurture it!
Well, Jane Smiley has a Pulitzer, so I don't think we can get better than this. The Georges and the Jewels is set in 1960s California. Abby helps her father with the family business: buying and selling horses. This feels like it used to be a fairly smooth operation, but Abby's sixteen-year-old brother recently left due to differences with their father, putting all the work on Abby, who is facing down Ornery George, the first horse she's genuinely a little afraid of. Abby's dad is determined to train all of their horses to the point where "a little girl could ride them," and Ornery George is light years from this goal.
Meanwhile, a new girl has arrived in Abby's small seventh grade class, creating drama with the Big Four, a group of girls that rule seventh grade with an iron fist. Abby is a girl who can only be described as nondescript. She keeps her head down and minds her own business, keeping silent when she sees things and ignored when she tries to bring anything up. Stella, the new girl, stirs up trouble without even trying, and drags Abby into it both as a buffer and a scapegoat, all for the attentions of a boy that finds wonder in discussions about bologna sandwiches. Abby just wants to get through seventh grade, keep the one friend she's got, and get a good grade on her Catholic mission model without her born again parents finding out and having a fit.
Oh, and she also wants to figure out Ornery George, who is a long way from help. The book does a nice job with Ornery George. There aren't any quick fixes to be applied to his character, and Abby is not the sole person responsible for his training. She's a good rider, but she's inexperienced and frightened. Not to mention, Ornery George has her number. The descriptions of the training they put George through are nicely done, and I actually followed a lot of it, which means I can give this book bonus points for making sense. Like I said, no wacky sudden revelations will be found here. Ornery George is a slow but steady student, and Abby is an easy kid who is falling into the business of buying and selling horses without really realizing it.
The one qualm I have with the book is what felt like a loose end regarding what happens when Abby's parents find out about the mission models the school is having the kids build. There's a string of religion in the book that abruptly comes to a frayed end, with Abby getting worried about her father Bible thumping one of her teachers as she looks on helplessly. I didn't expect the religion aspect to come to some great enlightened ending here, but there was something about it that felt unfinished.
The rest of it, however, finishes quite nicely.