Thursday, 24 March 2016

Book Review: The Runaways by Glenn Balch


Set just after the Second World War. Jan, a young Latvian refugee from a concentration camp, and his family have taken refuge on a ranch in Idaho, helping the rancher by doing farm work. When Jan accidentally breaks the law, memories of being incarcerated in the war terrify him and he runs away from justice to hide in the hills. But instead of escaping he becomes friendly with a herd of wild horses, feeling an affinity for their hunted status. He decides to stay and protect the foals from a wild cougar that is killing them.


As with many of the 'ranch' or 'wild horse' type stories published in the USA from the 1940s to the 1960s, this was firmly aimed at the boy’s market. It's focus on guns and killing will not endear it to some readers. For me, the boy’s hunt for the cougar takes up too much of the story. Less of this and more description of the actual life of the wild horses would have been preferable. It also seems a bit hypocritical that the boy is so angry with the cougar for killing the foals when he is doing the same thing in killing rabbits and other wildlife to feed himself. I must admit I feel a certain irritation when a cougar/mountain lion appears in this sort of story. I always feel its a cliche on a par with the gypsy in the British pony book. It is also what I like to call a 'bad press' animal, on a par with the wolf and fox. All three are almost demonized in so many stories and branded as evil ferocious killers, which is about as far from the truth as possible.

However back to the story itself. On the plus side, the book is well-written and the emotions of the central character are very well portrayed , especially his fear of being hunted and the envy he feels at the carefree easy life of his American contemporary Eddie. We soon realise that his anger at the cougar’s hunting of the horses is a transference of the impotent fury he feels about his family being hunted, first by invading soldiers and now by the game wardens. He can’t get rid of his own pursuers but he can try and kill the cougar. The reader will certainly empathise with Jan and what he has been through and will also want to keep reading to find out what happens to him.  There is the sense that Jan’s experiences have given him an insight into what the life of the wild horses - constantly hunted - is really like.

In summary certainly not a traditional pony story, it is deeply entrenched in the hard-hitting world of ranch life with no room for squeamishness and this will not be to everyone’s taste. Nevertheless it is a thoughtful portrayal of a boy trying to cope with his traumas and finding an unexpected affinity with the wild horses he encounters.


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Saturday, 12 March 2016

Book Review: Noel and the Donkeys by Hilda Boden

As you may know I like donkey stories and do class them as 'pony' books. (I also lump unicorns, pegasuses - or is that pegusi? - kelpies and ghost horses under the equine umbrella so donkeys have definitely got to be included!) Anyway I like to find new donkey stories and this is one you may not have heard of before despite the author being a familiar name in pony literature.


Noel, alarmed at the prospect of living with an unpleasant great aunt after his father dies, runs away. He befriends young Sammy who is giving donkey rides on the beach whilst his grandfather is ill. Sammy's grandma offers Noel a summer job helping with the donkeys. But things don't go well: Noel's attempt to disguise himself comes a cropper and Rumshus, the other boy who helps with the donkeys, becomes jealous of Noel and tries to get him into trouble...


This is actually the first in a series about the young red haired boy Noel and his various adventures. It has a donkey theme although not really a huge amount of equine content. Although the book is aimed at younger readers with its shortness, simple plot and dialogue, older children and even adults can enjoy the book too due to a certain wry humour provided by the adult characters. In fact the adult characters, in particular the Grandmother figure, are the highlights of the book.

The book is lightly humourous throughout but unfortunately some of the humour is provided through an insidious racism which also runs throughout the story.

Rumshus the black boy is portrayed as lazy, greedy, selfish and resentful: all traits of that racial stereotype which the British Empire held of the African American at that time. Rumshum is very deliberately contrasted to the two white boys who have all the positive qualities he lacks. He is the butt of much of the joking and humour in the story and also provides the main threat to Noel’s happiness. That this racism is a product of the times and is lacking in any real malice, does not excuse it to the modern reader. I literally felt a nervous shock ripple through me when one of the characters said that Rumshus didn’t need to wash as much as the others as he didn’t show up the dirt!

Racism aside, it is a nice enough, well written story with a likeable main character. Although fairly standard stock in terms of plot, the backdrop to the story adds an extra element for we modern readers. It provides a snapshot of a very British tradition and era: that of the British beach holiday of the early to mid 20th century with its donkey rides, Punch and Judy shows and music hall type entertainment. It is very nostalgic reading now that this tradition has all but disappeared.

I would have liked a little more donkey content in terms of the characters of the various donkeys and they could have played more of a part in the plot instead of being for the most part a backdrop to the main story. However the author is at pains to portray the donkeys as happy and well-looked after. Sammy is very conscientious in caring for his charges, making sure they are well rested and not over-worked. When the unpleasant Great Aunt complains that they are poor downtrodden animals, he hotly denies this.

There are a number of further books which follow Noel’s adventures and I liked this one well enough to be happy to read any of the others should I come across them, though I am not sure if donkeys feature in any of them.


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