Saturday, 5 April 2008

Florence Hightower....a dark horse

In a discussion of American pony books recently I was recommended to read the book Dark Horse of Woodfield by Florence Hightower. Not a book I had heard of before ( I hadn't even heard of the author) but as it was likened to a Noel Streatfield book (an author I love) I thought I would give it a go. Apart from a few exceptions I prefer English pony books to American ones, but I was very pleasantly surprised by this one. Yes, it definitely had some of the quirky family characters often seen in Noel Streatfield novels. But perhaps even more the family reminded me of the rather eccentric family in Enid Bagnold's National Velvet.
On the whole though, the eccentric family is more of a British institution, which is possibly why I so liked the book, which despite being set in the USA, somehow feels more British than American to me!

The story is set in the 1930s, in the midst of the Depression. The once prominent and wealthy Armistead family have now fallen on hard times and young Maggie is determined to win the top prize in the Junior Hunter Stake on her pony Star, so she can use the prize money to help buy her Aunt's horse back (sold because they needed the money).

The family are on the whole horse mad, with generations of superb riders, of which Maggie is the youngest. Most of the characters are brilliantly and humourously portrayed, with my favourites being the imperious old horse obsessed Grandmother who once made conversation with a horse at a tea party and Maggie's younger brother Bugsy who is a business man in the making, and is hoping to make money by breeding butterflies in his dead grandfather's study. But even minor characters, such as Maggie's teacher 'Fried Egg' and the unscrupulous car dealer George, are superbly drawn and made real.

It is probably not an out and out pony book as the main plot is not the schooling of Star, but the struggle to make money for the entry fee for the show. There is also a mystery to solve....that of deceased Uncle Wally, black sheep of the family (who loved poetry rather than horses) who, by writing a poem which the family took offence too, caused a family rift and then inadvertantly tragedy. His poems are now famous and good money would be paid for various letters he left behind. But they have mysteriously disappeared. The strands of these subplots all come together, as Maggie learns to appreciate Uncle Wally's poems in order to enter a prize winning essay contest, the secret of the offending poem is revealed, and the children's money making endeavours are the inadvertant key to solving the mystery.

The author manages to create an atmospheric family history. She mentions just a few lines of Uncle Wally's poems, but you start to imagine there really is a book with those poems in, and you yearn to read in its entirety the controversial poem which caused a rift between Wally and the other family members. But the author tantalisingly never reveals it!

As well as superb writing, the book is very funny. There are some great horsy anecdotes, a pony follows is master to school and gets stuck in the door, a sociable horse joins in with a ladies tea party, and the family's horses break free of their field to turn up at the horseshow to give their support! Yes, even the equine characters are eccentric in this book!
So, although not along the lines of the classic pony story and by a little known author who really is a 'dark horse' in the pony book world, if you enjoy quirky novels with interesting characters you will love this book, and I would highly recommend it. I don't think the author wrote any other pony stories but if you know differently please let me know so I can seek them out!


Sarah said...

I've just read this book as well and enjoyed it. I liked the sense of humour in it - particularly when they are selling the old car to the garage man.
I just wish that we had been able to read the mysterious poems!

Claire said...

sarah I don't suppose you know if she wrote any other pony ones?

Susan in Boston said...

Hi Claire,

Florence Hightower wrote only 6 books in her lifetime, and Dark Horse of Woodfield was the only horse book.

Of the six books, two others beside Dark Horse were published in the UK: Mrs. Wappinger's Secret and Fayerweather Forecast...I'm not sure if you'd like the first, but I'm pretty sure you'd enjoy the second, based on your comments about Dark Horse of Woodfield.

Her three books not published in the UK are The Ghost of Follonsbee's Folly (myster, came out in a picture cover edition, inexpensive and easy to find), Secret of the Crazy Quilt (a mystery/drama that, though it's illustrations might make it look like it's for younger readers, could easily be taken as a YA or even an adult book), and Dreamwold Castle (only book of hers I haven't yet read).

Sarah said...

Thanks for the info.Will be looking out for another of hers to try now.

Susan in Boston said...

:-) Glad to help!

It's an unususal pair that Claire has picked for her last two reviews....Vian Smith is an author easier to find in the US, but the three Florence Hightower books that were published in the UK are easier to find there than in her native America.

Dark Horse of Woodfield was never printed as a paperback in the US, and is very hard to find except in ex-library condition....but King Sam (Tall and Proud) was never printed in the UK as a paperback, and was but was in the US...and is very easy to find here!

Grin...I'd suggest for the next read to try William Corbin's Horse in the House...another US book easier to find and more popular in the UK...Puffin published it in paperback.