Monday, 9 June 2008

Sweet Rock: why is it so obscure?

I have recently finished reading a copy of Gillian Baxter's Sweet Rock. This is the least well-known of all Ms. Baxter's books and I myself did not even know it existed until someone told me about it not long ago. I suspect I am not the only one in a similar state of ignorance. The book is fairly rare and as far as I am aware was not reprinted at all. The question however is why? The usual reasons for lack of reprints are because the book was not very good or not popular. Perhaps it was not popular but as for not being very good...in my opinion it is one of the author's better works.

The only reason I can give for its lack of popularity is that it does not fit neatly into the usual pony book mould, and contains elements which may be considered controversial, at least at the time of publishing.

The story begins in quite a traditional way with our heroine Sharon bemoaning the fact that she does not have her own pony. She then meets Chris who owns a pony called Sweet Rock. She falls in love with Rock and soon becomes friends with Chris. But Chris is not your typical character. On the whole he is a bit of a wastrel, he does not treat his pony well, in fact has deliberately trained her to bolt and rear, and is always causing trouble. But Sharon finds herself drawn to him, his charm, love of life and willingness to help seem to balance out his bad points. When Chris has to leave for a few months he asks Sharon to look after Rock for him. With the help of a local riding school instructor, she re-trains Rock and begins to win classes on her. But then Chris returns. Although she is happy to see him, she is upset when Chris reclaims Rock, seeing her as an easy way to make money by winning in local shows. But Chris does not have the patience to do well on Rock and things start going wrong between him and Rock and Sharon.

This is as much a story about a troubled boy as a pony book. Chris is a complex and compelling character and it is up to Sharon to redeem not only the troublesome Rock but her equally troublesome master. The book explores whether nature or nurture will win out. Will Chris follow in his shady father's footsteps or can the good influence of Sharon and her mother help to change him? In my opinion this parallel of the traditional 'girl makes unreliable pony good' plot with that of Sharon's similar influence over Chris gives the book a far deeper and more subtle feel than that of your average pony book, but I can't help wondering if it is this more complex element which caused the book to lose popularity. I am reading it from an adult perspective, but the story may possibly have been just too for the younger reader wanting their usual pony book fix.

Also, the character of Chris may have been just too controversial for the time. Were there perhaps complaints from readers about his behaviour? Normally such bad behaviour would be consigned to one of the 'baddies' in a book but in Sweet Rock Chris is ostensibly on the side of the 'goodies.' The blurring of boundaries between the black and white of good and bad is in my opinion what makes the book such an excellent read, but perhaps this was just too subtle for a childish reader (or perhaps censorious parent) to fully grasp.

Whatever the reason it is a shame that this book wasn't more widely published or better known, for it is an excellent pony book which also has a bit of 'bite.' This makes it particularly suitable for the adult pony book reader. If you liked 'Bargain Horses' another quirky read which looks at life from a slightly off-beat angle, I am sure you will also enjoy this book. So please try and find a copy, read it, and spread the word!

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