Friday, July 24, 2009

Horse Sense

You know how some children love reading books about horses – “The Black Stallion”, “My Friend Flicka”, “Misty of Chincoteague”? Well, I was never one of those kids. Too much of a city girl, I guess. I couldn't see the point of reading about horses as long as Nancy Drew was still solving new mysteries. So Aryn Kyle's The God of Animals was not an obvious choice for me. But it had one of the best first lines I'd read in a long time: “Six months before Polly Cain drowned in the canal, my sister, Nona, ran off and married a cowboy”. So I decided to try it.

The book is narrated by twelve-year-old Alice Winston, who lives on a rundown horse farm in Colorado with her stoic, hard-working father Joe and her severely depressed mother. (When asked to describe her mother, Alice simply says, “She's sad”.) With her seventeen-year-old sister Nona gone, Alice is left to help her father make ends meet on the struggling farm. To do this he teaches riding to an enthusiastic but untalented rich girl, and allows wealthy, idle female neighbors to board their horses in his barn. Joe pays little attention to Alice, so she spends a lot of time inside her own head, trying to figure out the adults around her. To Kyle's credit these adults are portrayed as complex three-dimensional characters. But it is often hard to believe that a twelve-year-old, even one with an old soul, could make the adult-like observations that Alice does. What's more realistic is her discovery of the cruelty that adults are capable of inflicting, and her realization that she can be cruel as well.

Kyle's descriptions of the stark desert scenery and brutal heat are powerful. Even more powerful are some of the scenes involving horses, including the frank descriptions of separating foals from their mares and the 'breaking' of a spirited horse. This book addresses some dark themes: depression, dysfunctional families, the seduction of money, unfaithfulness, the isolation of adolescence. So I can't recommend it as a 'beach read' or a book for horse lovers. But it is a thoughtful coming-of-age novel by a talented writer.

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