Posted in Book Lovers Community, Practicing Paideia

The Black Stallion

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What is it about gorgeous black horses that draw men in, set their imaginations on fire, and steal a bit of their hearts? As a child, I knew that horses were regal creatures. Because they are gorgeous, capable of intelligence, posses affection, and have a certain nobility, I was always smitten with horses. Nearly all horses have something to recommend them, even Seabiscuit with his knobby knees, too-big head, and short legs was a hero. Black Arabians, however, are the stuff that dreams are made of.

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I grew up watching Ben-Hur and thinking that Judah’s white horses were a disappointment. In both the book and the movie, they are described as being near goddesses. And yet, their imperfectly white coats and grey-peach colored noses always seemed a bit unimpressive to me. Instead, I dreamed of gorgeous dark colored Arabians. Tall, strong, fast, and midnight-colored coats seemed, to me, to be God’s perfect expression of the horse. The standard by which all other horses would be judged.

Strangely, my childhood was devoid of horse books. I knew that Black Beauty existed, but I never read it. I think that we had an abridged copy in my family library, but I didn’t know that authors could describe horses well enough to rival the beauty that movies could show. My love of horses came from movies, I think. T.V. series’ and movies like “Ivanhoe,” “How the West Was Won,” “The Irish R.M.,” and “Horse Masters” had me dreaming of falling in love with my own magnificent steed.

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The Black Stallion
by Walter Farley has to be one of the most famous horse books ever written. And yet, this bibliophile, had never read it until a month ago. I can say with all honesty, that I was missing out. I am sad that I did not have this beautiful book in my vernacular and imagination many, many years ago. Thanks to my book club, I am catching up on all of the worthy books I missed out on. We are chasing our own classics education, one book at a time.

The Black Stallion is a triumphant and marvelous story. A young boy, Alec, is on a transatlantic steamer preparing for his return journey from visiting his uncle in India. His parents are waiting for him in New York and he is making this journey alone. As he contemplates the journey, he studies a beautiful pocket knife that his uncle gave to him before he left. Young readers, boys especially, will find it hard not to be intrigued immediately. Well-read readers will quickly guess that that pocket knife will not only prove to be essential but also representative of some central theme.

In case the prospect of following a boy through an independent sea voyage from exotic India isn’t enough to arrest the attention of the reader, Farley invades the scene with a tempestuous and exquisite black stallion who is being put aboard the boat. Fierce and powerful, this force of nature is not coming willingly. His mighty legs kick while his head thrashes and he destroys nearly everything in his path. Clearly this beast was captured from the wild and he has no intention of “settling into” captivity. All on board give the horse wide berth. All, that is, except Alec. Alec is enchanted by The Black. Without much than a hint of success, Alec tries to tempt The Black into friendship with sugar cubes. The horse is not friendly, but he is not too opposed to Alec’s presence near his stall.

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In the first chapter, we have a fairly perfect opening to what promises to become a story about a boy and his horse. All of that is put into question in chapter two, however, when a storm causes the ship to wreck. Lost at sea, Alec feels the whip of a rope and grabs hold of what is, in fact, part of the horse’s bridle. Together, the pair swim all night until the horse scents land and drags Alec onto the shore of a deserted island.

Reminiscent of Kipling’s romantic and alluring style, Farley delights us with several chapters of survivalist and boy-tames-the-wild-beast narrative. The writing is poetic and musical. The details are fascinating and imaginative. A little bit Swiss Family Robinson and a little Ralph Moody, these chapters detail twenty days of creative survival.

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When Alec and The Black are rescued, they make the long sea voyage to New York via Rio de Janeiro. Along the way, we watch the friendship between Alec and this untamed wild horse grow. Despite their growing love for each other, The Black remains terrifyingly wild when interacting with anyone or anything else. Alec must call on all of his own intelligence, courage, and patience to whittle away at The Black’s skittishness and break the horse’s wildness.

When Alec and The Black disembark in New York, we meet Alec’s parents. Farley does a beautiful job sketching these characters. He does not give us much detail about them, but what he does draw feels quite authentic and renders them noble in their own way. They love this son whom they thought that they had lost. They want to support him. They are anxious about the wildness of The Black. They are deeply respectful of the experience their son has survived and they seek to honor his crisis-honed maturity.

Once Alec is resettled into “normal” life and The Black has moved into the stables of a neighbor, the story shifts gears and becomes something akin to Come On, Seabiscuit. I won’t give any details but, suffice to say, Farley built The Black to be a great race horse.

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All of my children loved this book. My youngest (6) wants to be a cowboy when he grows up and he could not get enough of The Black. My middle child (7) loves good writing and enjoyed the adventure of it all. My oldest (9) is all boy and loved everything about Alec. As a parent, I loved that Alec is worth emulating. He loves and respects his parents. He is resourceful, courageous, and loyal. He is a willing student in the hands of an excellent old mentor. And, Alec is principled.

The copy we have is illustrated by Keith Ward and it is magical. The audible narration is expertly done. The movie… well, let’s not talk about that disaster except to say that it is not The Black Stallion, it is something else with the same name and a few of the same characters.  

This is a book which more than delivers on its reputation. And, delightfully, this is the first book of a series! I haven’t read the others and suspect that they aren’t quite as good, but Farley has earned my respect and I think that any book he wrote probably has some merit. 

Posted in Book Lovers Community, Practicing Paideia

Charlie the Lonesome Cougar

I have been packing around a paperback copy of Charlie the Lonesome Cougar for almost 50 years now.  The title is from a Disney movie that came out in 1967.  I may have watched the movie on a Sunday evening “Wonderful World of Disney.”  Perhaps at a drive-in theater!  In 1968, Scholastic Books published a book based on the screenplay.  I loved getting those Scholastic book orders every month or so, and I loved books about animals.  The book is only 78 pages long.  I probably paid a precious quarter for it.

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When the book came to mind recently, I wondered if I should risk ruining it for myself by reading it again.  My desire to know whether it is good stuff or junk was stronger than my wish to let the book and movie remain pleasant memories.   My conclusion about the book is that it’s sweet and wholesome.  The story is light with plenty of humor.  Animal-loving children can enjoy imagining having a cougar for a pet.  Adults will be aware that that can come to no good, but will fall in love with Charlie anyway.

Jess is a young man who works for a lumber company in the Pacific Northwest.  One day, while out marking trees in the woods, he discovers a tiny cougar kitten that has somehow been abandoned outside the den.  The baby’s eyes aren’t even open yet.  Who could leave the helpless kitty there to starve?

Mark Van Cleefe, the author who converted the screenplay to book form, writes some endearing descriptions of the kitten learning about his world.  Everything is new to Charlie, the cougar.  A blowing leaf crumbles under his paw, a fuzzy dandelion makes him sneeze.   If he hadn’t tumbled down the hill when coming face-to-face with a growling badger, that encounter could have ended badly.  When he starts a game of tag with a squirrel, he gets himself stuck in a tree and Jess has to rescue him.  Van Cleefe also periodically reports on Charlie’s age and growth so we get a picture of how quickly he grows into a huge cat.  At two years old he is 7 feet long and weighs over 160 pounds.  Charlie is no longer a housecat.

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The best parts of the story are when Charlie roams in the wild. Charlie’s interactions with the lumber men have more of a feel of set-ups for short, funny, or heart-racing scenes that build toward the inevitable parting of the man and the wild animal.  When Charlie accidentally wanders off into the wilderness, we see him face the challenge of surviving on his own.  He has to become a wild cougar rather than a pet that takes his daily food for granted.  We see how much of the life of a wild animal is taken up with self-defense and finding food.  For children who may not yet be interested in studying animals, I think his encounters with other creatures could open a door of investigation.  With great interest, Charlie watches as a bear catches fish.  He doesn’t learn how to fish for himself, but he becomes adept at stealing fish from the bear.  Then the bear moves on and Charlie is on his own again.

The lumber company Jess works for floats logs down the river to the mill.  A floating bunkhouse and kitchen raft follow.  Charlie accidentally sets the kitchen raft free of its mooring with Jess asleep inside.  The raft drifts into a log jam where the men have just lit a fuse for the dynamite set to break up the jam.  Charlie rides a log down the river, disembarks onto the log jam, and picks up the dynamite, attracted to it by the long “string” attached.  Will he respond in time to Jess’s hollering for him to drop it?  Of course he will. It’s Disney. Everything is going to be fine.  But chaos and much damage will ensue.

It is the company manager who finally tells Jess that he will have to stop bringing Charlie to work.  So, Jess has to cage his cat.  One night Charlie scents another cat, a female.  He escapes, goes for a romp, can’t find his way home, and spends the winter learning to fend for himself in the wild.  When he finds his way back to the lumber camp the next spring, there is more chaos in the camp and  everyone thinks Charlie has gone bad.  Jess shows up just as the manager is about to shoot the cornered cat.  I remember this scene being very intense when I was a child, but it isn’t drawn out too long, and it is very satisfying when Charlie remembers Jess and lets himself be led out of danger.

The next day, Jess takes Charlie to a wildlife refuge where he sets the cat free to live happily ever after.  Charlie meets up with his girlfriend and they amble off into the sunset.  The scenario will sound familiar to lovers of such stories as Gentle Ben and Rascal.  Though the pet will be missed for a long time, the wild animal really will be happier in the wild.  

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I was concerned that the movie I loved as a child would seem silly now; a string of slapstick situations with a giant cat living out of his natural element.  It was not.  The scenes of confrontation between cat and man’s world might seem a bit contrived to movie-savvy adults, but it turns out that most of the time is spent showing Charlie in the wild.  The thin plot almost seems more of an excuse to follow a cougar around with a camera than a real attempt to show what life would be like with a gigantic housecat.  Animal experts may find plenty of diversions from the realm of possibility, but I find the nature scenes wholesome and lovely.

There is an extended scene near the beginning where Charlie has wandered off to survey his neighborhood.  He encounters a raccoon cub, a fox kit, and a young pine marten.  Then he plays with a bear cub until the sow has to rescue Charlie and her cub from a male bear.  Mama wins the fight with the male when Charlie and the cub break the tree branch from which they’ve been watching the battle and land on the male bear’s head.  It’s a bit silly, but mostly fun, and the scene with Charlie and the cub napping together in a hollow log is darling.

Charlie’s foray into the wild after becoming lost in the wilderness is a large chunk of the movie.  It is more like one of Disney’s nature films than a regular movie.  Charlie and the female cougar romp and slide in the snow.  Charlie roams through some stunning scenery.  As Charlie has never had to hunt for food, he has to learn by watching other animals.  When the female cougar catches a rabbit, he expects her to share.  She does not.  The rabbit killing is done off scene, as is the killing of a deer later, once Charlie becomes an accomplished hunter.

My dad and his dad were loggers in Oregon, so I enjoyed watching the lumber company prepare for the spring log drive down the river.  They are shown breaking up log jams, the narrator explains how the cookhouse raft and bunkhouse raft (wanigans) follow the lumberjacks, and there is a short birling competition which Charlie joins.  When Charlie is chased by a bounty hunter with his dogs, Charlie escapes by doing a log-riding trick from his kittenhood, this time down a flume.

I am quite pleased that I can recommend this book and the movie for children of any age.

Posted in Book Lovers Community, Practicing Paideia

The Incredible Journey

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Today I am bawling into my laundry. My son read The Incredible Journey by Shelia Bunford a few weeks ago and begged me to read it. As I am writing this, I am ignoring the stack of notes I have from ten other books which I have read and need to review. I was worried about reading another book that I don’t have time to review, but I could not miss the opportunity to read something that my son was excited about. Given the volume of housework I have to get done, I opted for the Megan Follows audiobook from Audible. (Yes, THAT Megan Follows from Anne of Green Gables. She does audiobooks? Who knew?!) As I cleaned out closets in preparation for warmer weather clothing this weekend, I cried over the beauty of this story.

If ever a story was more aptly named than this one, I am not aware of it. To steal from Bunford, this story was incredible. A number of animal stories have some hefty sadness in them, and I respect why that it is.  This one, however, plays much more in the camps of perseverance, loyalty, healthy fear, and triumph. It is a glorious story of friendship and adventure. Animal lovers and naturalists will find much to love in Burnford’s storytelling.

When my nine-year-old son was reading this book, he would not come up for air. The story was gripping in places, hilarious in other places, and generally very intriguing. At mealtimes he would pepper the family conversation with tidbits he had learned from The Incredible Journey, like why Siamese cats have a crooked tail – so that they could safeguard the rings of Egyptian princesses who were bathing in the Nile river. The story is written in a friendly voice, it tells of an arduous and dangerous adventure, but it is also chock full of the kind of naturalist facts and legends that so often impress little boys.

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When the story opens, Luath (a young labrador retriever), Bodger (an old English bulldog), and Tao (a regal old Siamese cat) think that they have been abandoned by their human companions. Consequently, they embark on a three hundred mile journey across treacherous Northern Ontario in a search for their humans. Their journey is, as the name implies, nothing short of incredible.

During the journey, the pets experience some perilous encounters in which they accumulate scars and suffer life-changing injuries. Throughout, the reader experiences some genuine fear for the safety of the animals. While this may be emotionally difficult for a young reader, Burnford’s writing offers us a good amount of solace and helps us to focus on the triumph rather than the hurt. Each challenge renders the animals stronger, more loyal to each other, and more noble. We learn that as the animals persevere through the obstacles, their friendship with each other becomes more central to their individual identity.

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While the animals make this remarkable trek, they are helped along the way by kindly humans. Burnford builds this natural charity into the story in a way that is utterly real. It does not feel fabricated or forced in the least. The animals were pets, after all. They understand their role in the company of humans and they enjoy the comforts that human companionship provides. When the journey is still new and the domesticated animals haven’t found their primal hunting instincts yet, they enjoy the campfire and dinner scraps of Indians who take their visit as a good omen for the harvest. When the animals are truly down and out, they veer off of their path to stop at a hospitable farmhouse. When Tao is backed into a corner by a lynx, it is a hunter who saves him. When Luath’s jaw is infected and nearly swollen shut from porcupine quills, it is a gentle old farmer who lovingly treats the sick dog.

In this story, Burnford captures the intrinsic beauty of domesticated animals who are capable of living two kinds of lives: the primal and the companionable. She based this fictional story on her own pets, and her experience with their vivid personalities makes these characters perfectly real.

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In 1963, Disney made a marvelous movie out of this book. While the movie producers made minor alterations to the story (presumably to remove some of the animal violence) they captured the spirit of the book. The book and the movie rely on non-verbal interaction between the pets. The use of a narrator gives the story an observer’s perspective. When the animals interact with the humans, we listen in on their dialogue in much the same way that they animals are doing. Watching the movie with my kids, I realized that the book and the movie remind me of the book and the movie versions of How The West Was Won. Perhaps it is a silly comparison, but for me, both had the same general tone – a narrator telling of motivated characters who are embarking on a dangerous westward adventure that would require great fortitude, courage, tenacity, and community building. Also like How The West Was Won, these sweeping North American epics are told by narrators who stand at a distance, and in awe of the central characters.

As I said above, my nine-year-old son read this as part of his daily reading with no preparation. I followed up by reading with my ears via Audible. I decided that the book would be a stretch for my seven year old to read independently and a little too scary for my six-year-old to listen to via audiobook. If I had been reading this one aloud, I think that my littlest guy would have been just fine. Our reading stack is just too tall right now for us to sneak this in. So, instead of waiting to read the book, I decided to show the movie on a sick day. I am really glad I did! The movie producers opted to reduce some of the animal violence and they chose to film the scary parts in bright daylight – making them less scary. The movie producers also did such a lovely job filming the human vignettes, that no viewer was permitted to be in doubt of the ultimate happy resolve of the story. It was as if those human characters were serving as cheerleaders, rooting for the animals and promising us that Burnford wasn’t going to let them come to permanent harm. In this way, I can now give the audiobook to my six and seven-year-olds and know that they will enjoy it without fear. They will still have to grapple with the challenges that the animals undergo, but they will not be in doubt of the outcome. That reassurance will help them to love the story and appreciate the heroic struggle of Luath, Bodger, and Tao.

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