Sep 15, 2010

Hi, there! I'm every horse book you've ever read.

Astra
by Chris Platt
2010

I've read a few Chris Platt books, and commented on them accordingly with the loving obsession of a person who has read too many Thoroughbred books and is currently stalking its authors.  I know, I have no shame.  Willow King, Race the Wind!, Moon Shadow...the only non-Thoroughbred book of hers that I haven't gripped in my freakishly cold fingers is Storm Chaser.

After reading Astra, I'm really wondering about Storm Chaser.  In fact, I am going to have to get it soon so I can confirm a rising suspicion. 

Thirteen-year-old Lily O'Neil's passion is Arabian horses.  Someday she wants to be a great endurance rider like her mother.  But a year earlier, after a freak riding accident took her mother's life, Lily's father sold his daughter's beloved pony and forbade her to ride ever again.

When Lily's grandmother comes to live with them, however, she convinces Mr. O'Neil to let Lily clean stalls on the neighboring Arabian ranch, a place her mother had worked--and loved.  Lily is ecstatic, especially since she'll be near her mother's favorite horse--Astra.  Lily's mother had always believed that Astra had the talent to become a national champion.  Her goal was to ride her in the famous Tevis Cup Endurance Race, the toughest horse race in America.

Lily is determined to make her mother's dream come true.  But how will she convince her father to let her ride again?
So that's the summary.  Endurance riding!  What a breath of fresh air!  It's not three-day eventing or, god forbid, mustangs.  That in itself is great, apart from the endurance factoids that stuck out like sore thumbs.  Kind of like when Mary Anderson was inserting random horse racing facts into Thoroughbred, a land where horse racing facts go to die slow, miserable deaths.  The problem was in the rest of it.




You know, the horse book part?  It was kind of every Chris Platt book she's ever written.  Which, of course, is every Thoroughbred book ever written.  That in itself isn't really a bad thing.  We all know how middle grade horse books work, and they certainly thrive on repetition.  We all still read them, regardless of how formulaic it gets.  Unfortunately, I was having a hard time understanding how this book is different than Mood Shadow and Willow King, because it is basically the child of those two stories.  Chris Platt isn't just repeating the general horse story plot, she's repeating her own plots.  Almost down to the letter.

Consider the set up: Lily, Determined Tween Girl, lives down the road from Big Endurance Stable owned by Important Man who is the father of Nice, Respectable Teen Daughter and Annoying Tween Son.  Annoying Tween Son is not evil, but he's not all too nice, which makes him a wishy-washy antagonist if not just an Annoying Tween Boy.  He reads like he has a crush on Lily and doesn't know how to act appropriately around her, because he's a tween, a boy, and annoying.  Lily, because she's a Determined Tween Girl in a horse story, hates him.  This is Moon Shadow.  Exactly.

Because Lily's mom died during an accident with Astra (we do not know how Astra survived), her father has forbidden her to ride.  He sold her pony and cannot talk about horse subjects without breaking down into a rage or some sort of shock.  That's good old Thoroughbred.

Rather early on, Astra colics.  Lily throws a fit of Determined Girl proportions and refuses to let anyone put the mare down, which results in Important Man handing over Astra's papers in a fit of sentimental insanity.  After giving her the papers, he tries to tell her that he's still going to put down Astra if she doesn't improve.  Lily realizes that he doesn't have any power to make decisions regarding Astra, and indignantly points that out.  The vet basically says, "Um, yeah, what she said."

And thus they are stuck.  Astra goes into some colic coma, Lily refuses to let anyone put down the mare, and because Astra is special she recovers.  And then she is super mare.  And Lily's dad freaks out because they don't have the money to support a horse, so Lily freaks out and continues to pitch a fit until people with means run to her rescue.  Important Man will give her a job!  Nice Vet will foot the vet bill!  See, horse ownership for the financially insecure is possible so long as you know really nice rich people.  (This is the lesson I have learned time and time again from horse books.  Where were you when I was twelve, rich people?)

Then this sixteen-year-old boy rides up on his black endurance horse and makes Lily feel dirty and embarrassed because she's wearing dumpy jeans and trying to fix a fence by herself.  Because he's nice, he stops to help her and Lily is sold.  She pines after him for the rest of the book and he kind of pines after her, but nothing is resolved.  They're friendly and pine.  It's very Willow King.

Then blah blah endurance training blah.  Dad has a meltdown and realizes his wrongs, so he lets Lily ride and because she has done good works and Annoying Boy screws up again, she gets to go on and finish well in her endurance race that is not the Tevis Cup.  Although, I'm sure they'll do well enough in the unwritten future of this universe.

What I find interesting about Chris Platt's books is that she routinely doesn't let the main characters truly win at anything.  This is admirable, because after you read so many Thoroughbred books you're accustomed to some moderate hand-wringing followed by giant trophies.  However, along the way Ms. Platt's end result fails to matter because the story has fallen into every other horse plot trap there is and the end could very well be true perfection anyway.  The other thing I find interesting is that so far they seem to be variations of the same story.  Thoroughbreds, Mustangs, Arabians, Pintos...the core story and characters are still the same.  The breeds and names change.  The situation and relationships don't.

Despite what I see as a troubling carbon copying going on here, I do like Chris Platt.  I mean, I have read every one of Sarah Dessen's novels knowing full well it's a formula.  However, it's a tasty, tasty formula.  And I don't care.  If horse books had better characters, I might not whine as much as I do.

Which brings me to a general point: if middle grade horse books allowed their main characters to have a personality at all I would be remarkably forgiving if the book fell into every horsey plot trap conceived.  Instead they are always determined, hard working do-gooders with a narrow-minded viewpoint devoid of humor.  They have no hobbies.  At all.  No aspirations outside of horses.  No friends outside of horses.  No life outside of horses.  And if they were asked to have any of those well-balanced things, they would look down their noses at them as either elite and therefore bad or beneath them and somehow even worse.  Also, they weirdly always associate good grooming with snobbery while managing to be insecure about being filthy all the time.  This is like a character profile for the genre, and there are few exceptions.  It makes my eyes hurt.

So, we'll start slow.  Authors, give me a horse story main character who combs her hair and wears nail polish and has one non-horse interest she absolutely loves.  (Jessica Burkhart, you are exempt!)  I dare you.

That is all.

2 comments:

Mac v Mac said...

Dare I say it... Jilly Cooper heroines. In both Riders and Polo, Jilly's female characters rock. They bitch, they whine, they sometimes feel that Horses Really Suck. I always loved JC's female roles because they are just so real.

Failing that, for a completely horse-obsessed person, Jinny Manders (of Jinny and Shantih fame) was a down right rock-on character.

Robyn Campbell said...

I've just completed a middle grade adventure where the female protag loves horses, but she also loves to dance. Does that count? :) Agents here I come!