It’s that time again! Today is officially the first day of summer, which means it’s time to restart my summer series reviewing the Black Stallion books. We have some really good ones this year. First up, we’re back to Azul Island.
Steve and Pitch return to Azul Island for an entire summer of “archaeology” and horse-watching. But Pitch’s stepbrother Tom is back and meaner than ever, and when he discovers the island he threatens to destroy it. (If you need to revisit the backstory, here’s my review of The Island Stallion.)
First things first, we are reminded in long, loving, lavish detail that the geography of Azul Island makes no fucking sense.
Its precipitous walls rose naked from the sea, rising a thousand or more feet in the sky until they rounded off to form the dome-shaped top of Azul Island….
High up on the wall at the southern end of the valley an underground stream rushed from blackness to sunlight, plummeting downward in a silken sheet of white and crashing onto the rocks of a large pool two hundred feet or more below.
Steve is back for the summer! Two whole months! Who knows what he’s told his parents (and how old he is, exactly? this was a running debate in my head through the whole book and I’m going land on ~17-18, or about Alec’s age in the early Black Stallion books). Steve’s parents might be even more negligent than the Ramsays.
Other things I spent a lot of time pondering in this book: the homosocial overtones of Steve & Pitch’s relationship, and the weird toxic masculinity / homophobic blend that Tom represents and was Walter Farley actually trying to make a useful statement about the different ways to Be A Man or was he just writing and continually surprised at what happened next?
Or is Steve just weirdly sexually into horses?
Steve swept his hands across the muscled withers. He leaned a little on the stallion’s back, and the red coat beneath his hands quivered. “Oh Flame,” he said. “It’s good…so good to be back.”
…gross, Steve. The words “caress” and “quiver” are used way more often in conjunction with horses than I feel comfortable with in this book.
The Azul Island herd (remember, the weirdly genetically superior Arabian-yet-Spanish-ex-Conquistador horses who somehow look terrific despite 300 years of inbreeding and about a mile of grazing) now numbers over a hundred. Pitch’s hard-on for the Conquistadors continues unabated.
“Horses who faced the battles and world-shaking adventures with the men of Cortes, the Pizarros and DeSoto in their conquest of the Americas!” Pitch’s eyes were bright with his enthusiasm.
I mean, if you think imperialism and genocide are “world-shaking adventures,” I guess.
After a brief comparison to the poor hapless horses out on the sandy spit that’s the only part of the island the outside world knows about, we return to the herd, where it’s foaling season. Steve notices one bay mare in particular.
From her size and actions he knew she’d be giving birth to a foal sometime during the afternoon or night.
Here’s your reminder that Steve knows basically nothing about horses. He had a pony in his backyard. That’s it. Yet he is magically now able to tell at a glance that a mare is close to foaling.
I suppose now is the time to mention that the bay mare is the only female character of any species in this entire book. Which is also the time to mention that an underlying theme of this book is Pitch’s rampant misogyny.
“Finish your beans, Steve,” Pitch said a little sternly, “and stop watching that bay mare. She won’t have her foal during the daytime. Mares are just like women; they have their babies at the most unreasonable hours of the night…just to make it hard on you,” he added, smiling.
FUUUUUUUUCK YOU, Pitch. He continues to say that he used to live in a boarding house and the woman who ran it had three children all born “between three and five o’clock in the morning.”
“Mr. Reynolds and I often discussed how unreasonable it was of Mrs. Reynolds.”
That is a whole series of creepy-ass conversations, right there. That poor woman.
Then we get a bit of heavy-handed foreshadowing about Pitch’s brother Tom, who featured briefly in the last book. He owns a plantation on Antago (the main island) and has the government license to round up the horses on Azul Island. Tom, if you’ll remember, is a violent man who adheres to old-school domination techniques. We learn all this over again in the context of examining a somehow miraculously intact cat’o’nine-tails whip that Pitch found in the Spanish caves. Because sado-masochism is a weird and yet very real undertone of this whole book.
Pitch has also been playing archaeologist some more, by which this book seems to mean he is exploring the caves and yanking things out of them and he spends a lot of time “making notes” whatever that means.
“I don’t believe there’s a finer private collection in all the world,” Pitch said proudly as he put the things in the box.
I get that you’re proud of the stuff you’ve found and removed from its context and manhandled, Pitch, but there is absolutely zero chance that you have the best private collection of Conquistador junk in the world.
The two explore the caves for a while and – look, basically this whole section is some really ham-handed foreshadowing. The caves are dark and twisty! Tom likes whips! Pitch has hidden away a whole bunch of food in the caves! Tom is super crazy! If Tom finds the valley, everything is ruined!
(You get zero points for guessing how the rest of this book goes, but buckle up, we’re going to recap it anyway.)
The bay mare does indeed have her foal overnight, but wait!
Turning quickly, he saw the other foal. Twins! The mare had had twins! He knew the odds against such thing happening were one in ten thousand. And the odds were even greater, a hundred thousand to one, against twin foals living.
Because I am nothing if not a diligent recapper: the first set of odds do seem to be correct, but no one has put actual odds on the second. And yeah, twin foals are really bad news.
The second foal is a colt, and he looks like Flame (in that he’s chestnut, I guess) so Steve immediately leaps into action, helping the colt to its feet and trying to get it to nurse. The mare, somewhat predictably – being a wild horse, after all – takes one look at Steve and nopes the fuck out of there, and just like that, the foal is orphaned.
Now, raise your hand if you expected a good chunk of the plotline of this book to be about raising an orphaned foal. Anyone? Yeah, I didn’t think so.
Steve has some momentary self-doubt for interfering, but don’t worry, he gets over it quickly.
Why hadn’t he left the mare alone? Why couldn’t he have stayed away from the clearing? If he had not been there to pick up the colt, to confuse the mare, she might have accepted both her twins. He knew nothing about a foaling mare. It would have been so much better if he had just left her alone!
“But she might have abandoned the colt anyway,” Steve said aloud in his own defense. “I know that…I read it somewhere….or someone told me.”
YOU WERE SO CLOSE, STEVE! SO CLOSE TO ACTUAL INTROSPECTION AND RESPONSIBILITY!
That’s not really what these books are about though, so not only does Steve reassure himself that it’s not his fault, Pitch gets in a few weirdly anthropormorphic misogynistic side-swipes at the mare: “Why won’t she accept him? She’s his mother, isn’t she?”
Then Flame arrives, and he is not thrilled. Pitch and Steve convince themselves that a) Flame understands the situation and b) he is angry with them and then c) he feels protective of his son. None of that is remotely realistic or possible. There is zero chance he gives a single fuck about this foal; in fact, there’s a decent chance he feels the exact opposite way from their assumptions. This is, after all, a foal who has appeared (to Flame) out of nowhere, and wild stallions have been known to kill foals that were sired by other stallions.
After, I don’t know, a few hours of flailing and debating, Pitch and Steve realize that the foal hasn’t eaten anything. Nothing. Nada. Definitely not colostrum. So they redouble their efforts to reunite the foal, which prove increasingly desperate and increasingly stupid and increasingly weird.
“The band means nothing to him without his mother to guide him,” Pitch said in a low voice. “He doesn’t even know they’re his kind. He doesn’t belong.”
Okay, I know that orphaned foals can get mentally not okay and not learn basic horse skills and manners, but this foal is only a few hours old. I guarantee he doesn’t think he’s not a horse.
Cue an awful lot of process story. Like 50 pages of “should we sterilize everything? what’s the best way to get this into the foal?” and on and on. Frankly, it got super boring for a while in the middle, aside from some additional weirdness in which Pitch and Steve try to capture that poor bay mare and force her to re-adopt her foal. They try to rope her and tie her to a stake and…that will make her amenable?
Steve knew that Pitch was very nervous, even frightened. He’d had no experience roping any kind of a horse, let alone a wild mare. But he was going through with his plan just the same.
Yeah, it ends REALLY badly, with Flame trying to murder Pitch. Steve has to talk Flame out of it, and we get one of the few nicely thoughtful bits in the book, in which Pitch compares his brother Tom’s style of horsemanship to what he sees with Steve and Flame. Sections like that are why I really do wonder if Farley was trying to make A Statement about toxic masculinity.
Really, though, the whole Black Stallion series is a lot about refuting brutality and finding softer gentler ways to work with horses. We’ve seen similar plotlines over and over – it goes back to the very first book, with Alec taming the Black. It just gets even more explicit and melodramatic in this book, contrasting Steve and Tom.
Pitch and Steve realize they have to go back to Antago to get more powdered milk and to check in with a vet about what they’re doing with the foal. While they’re getting ready for the trip, the foal follows Steve into some dangerous circumstances, and badly injures his right hind leg. So they bring the foal back to Antago to get seen by the vet. On the boat ride over, Pitch tells Steve that Tom has been acting extra-strangely the last few months, and though he’s supposed to be in South America, both of them are worried that if he sees the colt he’ll know it can’t have come from the other horses on the island.
They get to the island and to the vet, whose diagnosis is just batshit.
“It’s a complete fracture of the proximal end of the tibia. We’ll use a modified Thomas splint of light aluminum.”…
“Don’t you worry about him,” he said. “Within three weeks that leg will be completely healed, and you’ll forget he ever injured it. And so will he.”
WHAT THE FUCK. Seriously though, WHAT?!?! Three weeks? A splint? AUGH. (The Thomas splint is still a thing, though, and is kind of fascinating; here’s a whole long article about it and its history.) So, yeah, the vet splints the foal up and puts him in a cast and tells them to basically let him do whatever he wants: he can walk around, even.
I just. Good grief. This is where the pacing of the book starts to move like lightning, though, so we don’t dwell on the fact that this malnourished orphan foal will recover from a tibia fracture in three weeks. No, Pitch and Steve are focused on the real, final problem of this book: Tom.
Pitch confesses that he thinks Tom may have finally gone around the bend. He’s gotten extra-bonus abusive to the people working his plantation, and then he took off in his boat for South America for reasons. But…what if he’s back? At this point, both of them become utterly fixated on the idea that Tom will be back and that he will discover Blue Valley and the secret of Azul Island.
Even though it makes zero – zeeeeeeeero – logical sense for Tom to be a) back in the area and b) to see them, you know what happens next.
The chase had entered its final stage. He would follow his stepbrother, the boy and the foal to wherever they were going and then…
And then…? That’s the end of a chapter, so who knows. Also, it’s important to me that you all know that the lack of Oxford comma in that sentence is Walter Farley’s fault and I am just faithfully retyping for you.
The whole rest of the book reads like a weird fever dream. Tom follows them to the island but he’s so far back he doesn’t really get it right (also he runs out of gas. and food. and water.). So he finds the original climbing entrance, and gets lost in the caves that Steve and Pitch found in the last cave. You know, the ones that Pitch kept saying were super-duper dangerous and twisty.
His whole being was consumed with hatred for those who temporarily had evaded him. “Fools! Fools!” he said in a hissing whisper. “To think you can get away!”
Let’s just stipulate that Tom-as-villain is a definite low point in the entire Black Stallion series. He has no real motivation – Farley writes his motivation as sheer power and dominance. He’s a cartoon villain on steroids, and though Farley tries to dredge up some sympathy for him by somehow sort of characterizing him as mentally ill, it doesn’t work.
Pitch finds Tom half-dead in the caves, feels bad for him, and brings him food and water. They’re both terrified that Tom will wake up and discover the valley, so they hatch some bizarre plan to move him from the caves while he’s still out of it and return him to Antago which is such a weird and terrible plan and they spend so much time agonizing over it that it just shreds any semblance of pacing or enjoyment of the end of the book.
It was at this point that I started rooting for them to just shove Tom back off the cliff and into the sea and wash their hands of the whole thing.
Tom, of course, escapes the caves. He discovers Blue Valley, Pitch’s “archaeology,” and the band of horses. He falls in hate-love with Flame. The whole book has been building toward this last third, which takes place over the course of only a few hours and is unsettling and poorly paced and weird and still somehow effective at conveying how disturbing the whole experience must have been.
The first thing Tom does is throws all of Pitch’s archaeology collection off a cliff, piece by piece – using his bull whip. He snaps it, picks something up, flings it off, one by one. It’s like some effed up, endless sado-masochism thing.
“You’ll do anything I want to do, won’t you? I can say kneel and you will kneel, crawl and you will crawl. I’m a little god, Phil, aren’t I? I have power, absolute power. There’s nothing I can’t do here. And no one would ever know.”
HOW IS THIS A CHILDREN’S BOOK.
…then Tom had the cat-o’-nine-tails in his hand. Fondly he fingered the whip with its nine hard leather cords.
Pitch and Steve, try, unsuccessfully to escape. Then the real trouble begins: Tom meets Flame.
Tom actually gets Flame’s attention when, for some reason, he starts whipping the new little filly – the twin of the orphaned colt. Literally for no reason. Understandably, Flame is ripshit, but sadly for him, Tom is somewhat adept with a rope and he manages to lasso Flame and tie him to a stake.
There follow many, many pages of Tom beating the shit out of Flame while Pitch and Steve watch. It’s awful, honestly. It’s brutal and bloody and vicious and I skimmed a lot of it because why are there so many pages of it???
“I’ll break you yet, you stud horse!” he shouted hysterically, repeating the words over and over as he sat watching the stallion in all his terrible, but to him, beautiful fury. His hunger for the time being was completely forgotten as he made his plans to beat this horse that knew no master.
Steve suggests that maybe Flame will kill Tom for them – finally, some sense! – but nope. Pitch is all “we need to get him to a doctor!” Which I guess is an admirable thing to say, compassion and forgiveness than all that.
The Flame torture – and the psychological torture of Steve and Pitch – continues for hours and hours.
Flame screamed again. And the sudden shrillness of it broke forever the slightest aspects of sanity which Tom had been fighting to retain. Now the mental fight was over. He screamed back at the stallion. He raced about the ledge, pawing the air with his hands, laughing, crying, shouting with no pause, going from one phase to the other, hysterically, madly.
Eventually, Flame turns the tables, chases Tom up a trail into the cliffs, and then right off the side of a cliff. Conveniently, Tom falls onto the same sandy spit where the other wild horses are. Flame is the real hero of this book, despite hardly featuring at all. (Seriously, I think Steve rides him like twice?)
For some bizarro reason Pitch and Steve are both really upset about Tom dying, so they get really dramatically upset about it (fainting, sobbing, throwing up). They rally quickly, though, and the rest of the book is a big fast-forward.
Pitch calls the police out, they investigate and declare the death an accident. Steve makes arrangements to bring the (miraculously healed!) foal back to America with him.
The cast and splint had been removed a week before, and there was no evidence of the fracture either in his appearance or movement.
From fractured tibia to 100% sound and not even marked in 4 weeks! Also,
Not far from Steve’s house were a barn and pasture where this colt would live and grow, with Steve watching him, caring for him
Ah yes, the Alec Ramsay school of boarding: those poor neighbors.
Aaaaaaaand that concludes The Island Stallion’s Fury and my way way overwritten review/recap/snark of it.
Do you have any memories of this book? Any thoughts on the most batshit part?