Wednesday 10 July 2013

Review - The Black Loch by Patricia Leitch

SUMMARY OF STORY: (some spoilers)

Kay and her cousins Sara and Edgar travel to the highlands of Scotland to stay with their Uncle Vincent at the ancestral family home of Deersmalen. Their fathers, both brothers to Uncle Vincent, had quarrelled with him years before and rarely visit. In fact it is the first time Kay has been there. Once there they meet the imposing black bearded Uncle Vincent, the enigmatic ghillie Fergus and his mysterious large grey dogs, and their cousins Jamie and Shona and Caroline. Everyone there is struck by how like Uncle Vinent Kay looks and she is puzzled as to how much fuss they make over her black hair. Kay soon falls in love with the place and quickly becomes friends with Shona and Jamie, as the trio ride about the moors on their Highland ponies. The more studious Sara gets on well with older cousin Caroline. But Edgar is not interested in countryside pursuits and feels completely left out of things.

When a mysterious camping trip to a nearby loch is arranged in which only Kay is invited, Edgar persuades his Aunt Sadie to let him come too, much to everyone else’s consternation. The secretive nature of the trip is revealed when a huge and beautiful horse appears from the depths of a loch. Kay is told that the family have been guardians of the horse for centuries and she is the latest in the line of guardians, due to her black hair. Kay is overwhelmed by the horse’s magical presence but the more prosaic Edgar thinks the horse should not be hidden away where no-one can see him but given to a zoo or to scientists to study. This makes him even less popular with the others. Edgar’s lonliness and isolation increase, culminating in a disastrous meeting at a birthday party when, in a bid to get some attention, he tells an unscrupulous big game hunter about the existence of the horse. When Kay finds out that the horse is in danger, it is up to her and Jamie to save him.


On the surface this is a fairly simplistic fantasy/holiday adventure story. It is very readable and quite gripping but the plot is fairly basic: children going off to stay in a new and exciting place for the holidays, the heroine discovering a beautiful fantastical ‘water horse’ who is then placed in danger by unscrupulous villains who want to make money out of the creature. The characters are not created with a huge amount of depth or introspection either. So why do I consider this a classic fantasy story?

For me what raises it from the ranks of an ordinary story are both the sense of atmosphere the author evokes and the hidden depths and themes the story contains.

The most obvious message in the book is the importance of keeping wild animals free and untamed as opposed to exploiting them for human entertainment, money or even scientific knowledge. The Water Horse may be a magical being, but it is also a wild creature. Although it allows Kay to touch it, there is never any sense that it can be tamed. It is clear that this is not a normal domestic horse and cannot be treated as such. Kay realises that its beauty and power are in its wildness and freedom and the fact it stands apart from civilization:

“It was a being from a lost age, proud, powerful and alien to the petty confusion of our living.” (page 70)

But there are those who cannot see something wild and free without wanting to capture it and bend it to their will, like Buffy the hunter. Or probe its secrets with scientific eyes, like Edgar. It is clear that Edgar doesn’t feel the magic of the horse at all, referring to it banally as “an absolute whopper” and enthusing about how much a zoo or scientist would pay for it. This contrast in attitude reminds me of Dolphin Summer by Monica Edwards in which a wild dolphin forms a bond with a girl who only wants to appreciate its beauty and wildness, whilst others want to shove it in a marine theme park and make money out of it. You can almost feel the exasperation of Leitch and Edwards, at the way greed (for either money or knowledge) blinds people to beauty and magic.

Yet the water horse is not just symbolic of wild animals threatened by the greed and banality of humanity, it is also a symbol for Scotland itself, the real Scotland of tradition, mystery and wildness, as opposed to the tourist ideal of the place which bedecks a million tins of shortbread. Once again the desire to exploit for money – in this case for tourism - threatens the true nature of the place.

It is obvious that the author loves the Highlands and she perfectly recreates the atmosphere of the place, it’s uniqueness, the sense of mystery and magic which envelops it. There is a just ever so slightly magical air running through the story which begins when Kay glimpses one of the Grey Ones, only to be told she is seeing things. Fergus’s piping of the seals heightens this magic and of course the culmination is the unforgettable first glimpse of the water horse. The mystery element also grips the reader as we ask ourselves: what is the significance of the mysterious dogs, why is Kay’s hair colour so important, what caused the brothers to quarrel?

The atmosphere is heightened by Letich’s writing, which is lyrical and mesmerising in places. This is one of the best written of all her books: only in A Dream of Fair Horse and some of the 'Jinny' series, is this quality of writing bettered.

But at the same time, the book avoids the fate of many fantasies which become so airy-fairy and divorced from reality that we cannot really believe in them. Scotland may be beautiful and mysterious but it is a real place and in this story there is a strong rooting in reality, with squabbling children and the mundane day-to-day arrangements of life, such as the preparations for the birthday party, contrasting with the more magical side of the story. Patricia Leitch also gives us a glimpse of the sometimes unpleasant, non-magical side of Scotland with the driving rain and the mud and cold that Kay experiences on her trek to the loch. In this, and in many other ways Leitch goes out of her way to contrast real Scotland with the tourist ideal. She pours gentle scorn on the touristy attitude of the character of Angela, who decks out the halls in tartan, ties ribbons on the stag’s heads and makes everyone wear kilts. The dichotomy of the Scotsman who has encouraged this attitude for the sake of tourist money but at heart is saddened by it, is represented by the contrasting attitudes of Jamie and his father. Jamie is shocked that kilts will be warn by ‘Sassenachs’ at the party, but Uncle Vincent is more circumspect: he placidly dons his full regalia and plays the pipes, knowing that keeping the tourists happy will enable him to keep his ancestral home.

This contrast between these two types of Scotland is seen best in the party in which these disparate worlds collide. This is in turn best summed up by one of the stand-out moments in the book, when Buffy, doing party tricks to please the crowd, lassoes Jamie. There is a battle of wills between the pair which also represents the battle between the real Scotland with its legends and traditions and those who would like to turn the place and everything in it into a sort of theme park to amuse the masses. A similar contrast appears in the Patricia Leitch ‘Jinny’ story, The Magic Pony, in which Leitch argues against the modern world which would force the gypsy woman Keziah to die in a hospital when her culture dictates she should die in her own home. It is clear that Patricia Leitch feels strongly about such matters and hopes her readers will feel the same.

Although there is little in the way of character introspection, this is not to say that the characters are dull and two-dimensional. In fact the author shows great insight into human behaviour in the way the character of Edgar is handled. Although he betrays the family secret of the water horse, he is not portrayed as an out and out villain. In fact we even feel somewhat sorry for him. He is completely unsuited to the lifestyle of Deersmalen and is completely isolated from the other children. It soon becomes clear that the children’s failure to include Edgar in their adventures or show any sympathy for him sets off a chain of events which leads to the water horse being put in danger. The children are made to realise that is their actions as much as Edgar’s which have caused the situation.

“You made Edgar betray the water horse, the voice of my conscience accused. If you had been nicer to him this might never have happened.” (page 143)

Is this a horse story? Some say no, but I don’t agree. It may not contain the traditional elements of a pony story such as gymkhanas, schooling and the like but for me this is a classic horse rescue plot. The horse in question may be unique and magical but it needs rescuing as surely as any unwanted nag bound for the knackers, or valuable racehorse threatened by thieves. And how can anyone say a book which has at its heart and soul such an amazing horse, not be a horse story? Whatever the Water Horse may be in terms of symbol and metaphor, it is still a horse. Not your normal everyday horse, to be sure, but – unlike the completely alien carnivorous water horses in Maggie Steivater’s The Scorpio Races for example – this creature is all equine. Its behaviour is completely horse-like, whinnying, blowing air through nostrils in greeting, and even bucking off Kay when it becomes irritated, just like any other self-respecting horse! Although magical, this is not one of those sparkly unicorns or glittery flying horses which populate may a children's pony story today: just as Leitch bases her fantasy scenario in reality so too her fantastical being is also a real horse. In many ways the story is very much like the classic American wild horse plot in which a lone character battles to keep a stallion wild and free whilst others attempt to capture and tame him.

In summary this is a story that can be read on many levels: as a cracking fantasy adventure, a unique horse story, a celebration of the beauty of wild animals and a plea to let them live free - or even as a study of Scottish culture. This I think gives the book a wide-reaching and lasting appeal and makes it a classic.

I would award the book 5 horseshoes (EXCELLENT)

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1 comment:

Black Beauty said...

This is one of my favourites!