When a young woman named Pam answers an ad to work at Hopeful Farm, Alec
totally loses his mind has to make decisions about the path of his life.
Right off the bat, let’s get this out of the way: this book gets huge bonus points for doing a couple of really simple things. (I’m not saying it does them well, but it does them.)
- including a woman as an actual living, breathing character
- introducing horses who are not the Black
- making Alec actually think about what he wants out of life
- at least trying to connect the events of the story to current social conversations
I don’t know if it’s fair to include the bullet point of “outs Henry as a huge fucking asshole, which is where he’s been trending for the last dozen or so books,” but it does that too!
The book starts with employment difficulties at Hopeful Farm, and let’s remember here that Hopeful Farm is the breeding/training farm that’s supposedly Alec’s base. They have something like a couple dozen horses there, plus three stallions (the Black, Satan, and Wintertime, remember him?). They breed AND train. It’s a big operation.
And he wants to hire ONE person to do…all of it. There’s a brief mention of “maintenance” help and a foaling guy but this person is supposed to do everything else. All the handling, grooming, feeding, and training. ONE person. No wonder they have a horrible time keeping good help.
A new person answers the ad, and GASP, it’s a GIRL.
The girl appeared in his open doorway and said, “Good morning, Sun…I mean, sir.”
“Sun,” she repeated, laughing. “S…u…n. It’s crazy, I know, but I always say it in the morning, and people look at me just as startled as you do. I guess it’s because I feel good when the sun is out.”
Pam is a capital-H-Hippy. I think there’s a reasonable argument to be made that she either spends this entire book high as fuck, or that she’s dropped so much acid that her brain is not…entirely…all there. Don’t get me wrong: she’s genuinely nice, and a really interesting character, but she also must be totally infuriating to interact with.
“Very few kids would stay with it,” he said defensively. “It’s hard and often dirty work, much more than they realize from books and movies. The time spent training them is lost. Few – if any – would remain.”
“I know,” she said. “I’d go, too, after a while; that is, even if you did hire me.”
Two things we learn about Pam pretty quickly: she really does know what she’s doing (she’s been riding and handling horses her whole life) and she is a Free Spirit who won’t be tied down to anything or anyone. She basically takes this job saying that she’s going to quit at some undefined point in the near future, whenever she feels like it. Alec finds that charming but he knows it will make Henry nuts.
The old trainer had no use for girls around barns. The would see only her femininity, and her honest candor would infuriate him.
Henry – and many of the character in this book – zooms way past sexist and straight into misogynistic. For example, here’s what he says about Becky Moore, a jockey who’s introduced as “the girl jock” a bit later.
“The right size but the wrong sex,” Henry continued. The girl was about five feet, one inch tall and weighed around 100 pounds, the ideal size for a rider. “Too bad. She’d like to have been a boy.”
“I don’t like to see girls around horseman….just because of their sex, they create problems we wouldn’t have otherwise. It takes a man’s mind off his work. They get emotionally involved, everything…I think a woman should be a woman and a mother and everything that goes with it.”
Anyway, Pam passes the test – basically Alec puts her on a colt named Black Sand who he feels pretty sure will dump her. She handles the colt quite well, and Alec leaves her in charge of the whole farm and runs off to race the Black at Aqueduct.
Henry rants and rants while they’re at the track about women and how they ruin everything and Alec reflects that Henry actively bullies any of the women he sees at the track by picking on every single thing he thinks they do wrong, and he basically implies that they sleep around to get their jobs. It’s really, really gross.
A lot of this book is in Alec’s head, and not in a psychedelic way like the last book, but more like Alec – old before his time but still technically somewhere in his late 20s – is supposed to be our conduit to understanding how society is changing around the characters. While Henry is ranting, Alec thinks a lot about how he’s always been raised to respect his elders and listen to and accept everything they say, but that the times, they are a-changing. He also has a nifty political moment when he thinks about how shittily everyone at the track is paid for all the hard work they do with absolutely no backup plans.
In Alec’s opinion, there was nothing explosive about women trying to get an even break. As with all minority groups, they were trying to get a piece of the action, equality of opportunity. He kept his silence, knowing that his beliefs – if he expressed them – would do no good. Henry’s tirade against women was based on emotion, not logic.
You guys, Alec went and got woke! So did Walter Farley! It’s hamfisted but it’s pretty great, and it’s a running theme throughout the book. It’s awesome. That said, it’s still problematic as hell because – well, you’ll see.
In the meantime,
Sex prejudice was no less evil than racial or religious bias, Alec decided.
Hell yeah, Alec!
After Henry is done ranting, Alec tells him, oh yeah, I hired a girl. Henry orders him to fire her. After implying that Alec hired her in order to sleep with her – which, Henry, have you been paying attention? The only person Alec has had the hots for in this entire series was Raj from The Black Stallion Returns.
Alec gets angry enough about Henry’s order to push back pretty hard, and Henry flat-out says to him that he has to choose between him and Pam. So Alec trudges back to Hopeful Farm and plans on firing her. Basically he reasons out that Henry is more important to their business than Pam is. It’s actually not a bad argument from a logic standpoint, but it ignores, you know, everything else.
He goes to fire Pam, and finds she’s re-decorated the apartment with “psychedelic art of colorful, intricate design” and is reading a book of poetry by Leonard Cohen. Good for her! Leonard Cohen is awesome. Did I ever think I’d get to shout-out to Leonard Cohen while reviewing a Black Stallion book? Walter Farley is vast and contains multitudes, you guys.
Anyway, he never finds Pam, even after creepily searching through her whole apartment including her photo album. The next morning, he checks in and Pam has been doing what he asked her to do, training the horses, and thankfully we also find out that she’s not doing stalls. We meet two new horses, Black Pepper (Black Minx’s daughter! When did they have time to breed her? NOBODY KNOWS.) and Black Out and the naming scheme is both dumb and kind of fun.
Her clothes were jeans, a white blouse and brown, worn loafers. No boots; no masculinity. And in the filly’s mane were braided flowers of yellow, pink and blue.
I have so many questions, such as, who gallops racehorses in loafers? since when are riding boots “masculine”? and when did she have time to braid flowers in Black Pepper’s mane?
Alec and Pam work together with their horses and it’s a suprisingly nice long stretch of just two people figuring out their horses together. It’s really great! Alec watches Pam ride and is appreciative of her light touch, and they problem solve the filly’s issues with the starting gate together. Pam name-drops that she rode with Captain Bill Heyer and Stanley White, two real people.
While they’re hanging out together, Alec realizes how happy he is at Hopeful Farm – which is something he knew way back in The Black Stallion and Satan, which in retrospect is really where these books took a sharp left turn. Alec was a homebody who didn’t want to race the Black. Now he’s impatient to keep racing faster and faster for more money. Pam points out that he doesn’t think of horses as friends anymore, and she’s totally right.
Alec thinks a lot more about what he really wants out of life, and watches Pam braid flowers into Black Sand’s hair.
There was no point in this girl’s ever having a luxurious home when she so obviously preferred a horse barn, he decided.
PAM IS ALL OF US.
Anyway, that night Alec checks in with his dad, who agrees with Henry.
Pam was doing her job well, his father had said. There was no fault to be found with her work, but it wasn’t right to have an attractive girl working around men even there at the farm.
His mom is also the worst!
Girls should not compete with men in the racing world, she said. It was too rough. Horse shows were much better for them. There they were treated like ladies. Girls should be more reserved and feminine. Otherwise, who would take care of the home and children?
Alec realizes all of a sudden that his parents are bigoted assholes, which is kind of a hard thing to have to absorb about your parents.
They were kind, wonderful parents, but Alec realized their remarks were lethal enough to poison the climate of feeling between generations. And he was further disturbed to think that they did not seem to consider him one of today’s youth.
In a lot of ways, Alec’s childhood vanished. He has no friends at all. He’s done the horse thing obsessively since he was 15 and got lost in that shipwreck. His formative influence has been Henry, who is as noted an asshole. This book is both Alec and Walter Farley realizing that he’s been backed into a corner.
Alec tells Pam all about what everyone thinks of her, and she is predictably not thrilled, because that is a shitty thing to do to someone. “Everyone hates you and here’s why and I can’t make up my mind! Should I hate you too? Also, please be my therapist?”
“I have to go back tomorrow,” he said. “Will you stay here, Pam?”
“Yes,” she said, meeting his eyes. “I want to stay very much.”
“Then it’s all settled,” he said. “Now we can talk about us.”
WHOA WHOA WHOA
Alec, that is extortion. “Oh good, you’re staying, let’s fuck”??? NO. WAVE OFF. YOU ARE HER BOSS. Ugggggghhhhhhh. And before you say I’m reading too much into this, the book later implies pretty clearly that the fade to black at the end of that chapter was followed by sex. Coercive, weird, maybe not entirely consensual sex. Damn it. You were all doing so well!
Alec returns to the track the next day and the Black is happy to see them and wtf, they have their own farm a short drive away and they are stabling this poor horse at the track. Alec thinks guiltily that maybe he should have brought the Black back to the farm, YEAH, Alec, you should have! On the plus side, he does have a spot-on observation:
Horsemen who loved their horses were all alike, he thought. Each was filled with the same certainty that the horse he loved was the fastest, bravest, strongest, kindest, and smartest.
The whole next bit is devoted to Becky Moore, Girl Jockey. Now, the book’s treatment of Becky is…problematic. A lot of people make a lot of noise about her being A GIRL but we never actually meet or talk to her. She’s a token. She’s not very consistently portrayed, either. Is she tough? Does she act too tough? Who knows! She acts however the narrative wants her to in an given moment. She’s also like some Fox News conservative’s wet dream of how women are supposed to act in a workplace: don’t remind them you’re there, don’t make any waves, just put up and shut up.
Which does not stop literally everyone from speculating a) about how she’s sleeping with everyone at the track and b) that she keeps a big dog because everyone she’s not already sleeping with wants to rape her. WTF.
“Hey, Alec,” one rider called to him. “We’ve got a girl-driver on our hands today.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“Becky’s no girl,” another said. “She’s a tomboy. Did ya ever see her in a dress?”
blergh. Alec is at least a bit more circumspect.
What the male jockeys hadn’t mentioned, though Alec knew it was very much on their minds, was the fact that the girl riders threatened their earning power. They feared a greatly reduced income if girl jockeys successfully invaded their ranks.
Before Becky’s race, Alec and Henry have one final showdown in which Henry threatens to leave the business if Alec keeps Pam, and when Alec is sort-of firm (he mostly doesn’t talk while Henry rants) finally decides that Alec can keep his little trollop on the side as long as she never shows up at the track.
Alec corrects none of his assumptions, though he very astutely realizes that there’s no way Henry’s going to walk away from the business. But he also doesn’t exactly stand up for himself or for Pam either. Alec is that guy who supports you by email but does jack shit when there’s actually stuff going on.
Becky’s race goes fine except there’s a whole bit where our racist Irish stereotype jockey from The Black Stallion’s Courage seems to feel the need to protect her? Or some bullshit? Anyway, she wins the race through some hard riding.
Henry was the first to turn away from the window. “Big deal,” he told a reporter. “She gets a horse that’s pounds the best and manages not to fall off.”
Fuck you, Henry.
Henry’s attitude at least starts to make Alec think hard about what his actual goals are out of his life and career. Henry has become the guy who only cares about how much money they can make racing, and how many horses they can beat. Alec wonders if he’s missing something – if he’s lost the love of his horse and of racing that made him fall in love with the sport to begin with.
Alec heads back up to Hopeful Farm for the weekend, and he and Pam have a whole moonlight interlude in the fields with conversations that go like this.
“You’ll never fall, Pam, not you. But even if you did, I’d be there to catch you.” Then, seeing that she was truly afraid, he took her in his arms and kissed her.
“I believe you would catch me,” she said, her face pressed against his, “because it takes life to love life. And I am you as you are you as you are me.”
“That’s a very nice thought,” he said.
Anyway, after his weekend getaway/booty call, Alec heads back to the track and races the Black again, only it doesn’t go well. He gets boxed in and he rides poorly and the Black gets out of control and sort of…shoves his way through other horses? Anyway, because of the way it happens, a bunch of the other jockeys (including Becky!) file complaints against him and the Black is disqualified. Basically the Black acts, for 5 seconds, like the horse he used to be 10 books ago and everyone freaks out. Including Henry, who blames Pam. Who shows up at the track, because Alec invited her but didn’t really expect her to come.
“I know it isn’t for his beauty and pretty ways that you love him, Alec, but see the crimson flower in his eyes!”
Alec moved to her side to find out what she meant. With Pam here, he thought, he must be prepared to see many new things. The Black’s eyes were shining with a red glow that had terrified many people in the past. Pam saw it as a crimson flower.
Henry and Pam have it out. Alec does JACK SHIT. He just stands there and watches Henry say nasty things and Pam sort of float through the conversation defending, mostly, Alec – not herself. Somehow at the end of that conversation, they all decide that Pam should race Black Sand in his debut the next week. Yeah, honestly, it makes zero sense to me either. They get her an apprentice license, and, well – it goes badly.
But, suddenly, Black Sand took two quick jumps to the outside. Pam tried to stop him as he bolted crazily across the track. Alec caught a glimpse of the outer rail and knew that the colt would run full tilt into it.
“No!” he shouted at the top of his voice. Black Sand’s hurtling body crashed into the fence and Pam was catapulted high into the air!
Alec had jumped the rail and was on the track, running for the far turn when the field of horses swept by. With the track clear, the ambulance left the infield gate. Alec flagged it down and hopped into the front seat. A small crowd was already on the scene when they got there.
Black Sand was dead, his neck twisted and broken. White-faced, Alec kneeled beside the still, silk-clad figure that was Pam. His forehead was drenched in cold sweat, his body trembling uncontrollably.
Pam is totally fine, though, and he tells her Black Sand is dead.
Alec realized that Pam had known the moment the colt had died, for she and Black Sand had been one.
They all head back to the barns and Alec drops this truth bomb on her.
“Henry was right about girls’ racing,” Alec said. “It’s everything he said it was. It’s not for you.”
FUCK YOU, ALEC.
Pam has a solution though!
“I want to finish what I began,” she said. “Let me.”
“But how can we do that with no Black Sand?” Alec asked. He hadn’t wanted to mention the colt again, but she gave him no choice.
“By letting me ride your horse on Saturday,” she answered.
oh holy shit what
in the history of bad ideas this is a top 5 for sure
“I’ve ridden in one race and the horse died so let me ride the crazed murder-stallion in the big race on Saturday!”
BUT EVERYONE’S FINE WITH THIS.
They put Pam up on the Black for an exercise run and he…bolts. Of course he does! But she gets control of him after a turn or two. Sort of. Honestly, not really, but she doesn’t die or kill him so everyone gives the thumbs up for her to race him!
It literally happens that fast, guys. After endless chapters about how dumb girls are and how Alec should just live in the moment, man, in the space of 2 chapters Black Sand dies and Pam is riding the Black in the big race.
It’s not a great race. The Black is an unrideable asshole, but Pam at least points him roughly in the right direction and do you honestly need me to tell you that they win? They win. Of course they win. No one in these books loses races.
Anyway, after the race, Pam heads back to the farm. Now, she’s been spending this whole book reminding Alec that she might leave at any moment, and soon after she gets to the farm, she tells him that she’s headed out that night. No two weeks of notice for her! She’s packing all her things in the car and heading out that night, for Virginia, and from there to Europe to bum around for a while doing horses. This is a pretty crappy way to be, but Alec does NOT help. He mopes and mansplains and tries to bribe her and also low-key threatens her. Classy guy, our Alec.
“You’ll be hurt, if you go on as you do,” Alec said. “They’re going to knock you down. You’ll find people who are lots worse than Henry, and you wo’nt be able to change them as you did him.”
“Then, when I come back, we’ll help to outbreed them,” she said gaily.
Out…breed…them? What does that even mean? Do I want to think about this too hard?
Nothing he does works, and she heads out, with promises to come back someday. He also makes promises to go visit her in Europe. It will all work out, they’re two crazy kids in love! Or weird obsession. Or lust. Who even knows.
Whenever he wasn’t with her, her fingers would be the wind and the wind her fingers, and all space would be the smile of her.
yeah, that’s the last sentence. Let me know if you have ANY idea what it’s supposed to mean.
So, did you remember this book? Are you more of a Pam or more of a Becky? Does Henry have any redeeming qualities left at this point? Did anything Pam said make any sense to you?
Finally, administrative note: next week is the LAST BOOK! I can’t believe it either! Don’t worry, I’ve got a few more general posts planned about the Black Stallion, including some audience participation stuff in which we try to collectively decide the actual craziest moment in the whole series.