black stallion series · Uncategorized

Summer Series: The Black Stallion’s Courage

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After the mare & foals barn at Hopeful Farm burns down, the Black returns to racing to win enough prize money to rebuild.

One of the hardest things about these books is the wildly divergent quality. For every The Black Stallion Revolts, there’s a Black Stallion and Satan. The pendulum swings with no pattern and no warning.

Which is how we end up here, one book after The Island Stallion Races, with a legitimately great book.

I KNOW! Rest assured, I’ve still got some snark, because there’s a lot in here that’s nuts, but honestly? I really, truly enjoyed reading it. It had interesting characters, a good plot arc, reasonable tension, and some terrific race scenes. Definitely a top 5 for me.

We open the book on Alec waking up in the middle of the night because something indefinable is wrong. He gets out of bed and for plot reasons cleans out his coat pockets before going to find out what’s wrong.

The letter was from the insurance company. Opening it he found that as of three days ago, when final payment on the fire insurance policy had been due, all the barns and other buildings of Hopeful Farm were unprotected in case of loss or damage! Furious with himself, Alec shoved the letter into his pocket. It was inexcusable that he should have forgotten to give the premium notice to his father, allowing the policy to lapse.

HERE HAVE SOME FORESHADOWING, says Walter Farley. Honestly, though, would you expect anything else from Hopeful Farm, site of some of the most bizarre business practices in the Thoroughbred industry. (See about thirty pages later, where Alec is utterly horrified at the idea that he might have to sell some horses!!! NO!!!! NOT THAT!!!!)

If you missed the big, glaring hint, the weird feeling that woke Alec up was some kind of psychic premonition that the foaling barn was going to burn down. But here’s what actually happens.

  • Alec goes to the barn, where he finds a mare named Miss Liz ready to foal
  • He finds the foaling manager up in Henry’s apartment smoking a pipe and cooking bacon
  • They get into a fight that leads to the foaling manager – who sounds like an incompetent asshole? – storming out
  • At that moment the mare goes into labor and Alec helps her foal out but for some reason she tries to murder her foal and that’s like a known thing that she does and yet they keep breeding her???
    • “Old mare, why do you make these moments, which should be the best of all, so terrible? I’m not going to let you kill him as you did another of your sons. Nor will you kill me as you did old Charley Grimm. I’m not afraid of you, old mare, just very sad for you.”

  • Just after the foal is born Alec’s father arrives and says oh hey THE WHOLE TOP OF THE BARN IS ON FIRE
  • And they realize that Alec and the foaling manager both stormed out of the apartment without taking the bacon off the stove

Alec has to break the news to his father that there’s no more fire insurance and the farm has suffered a $100,000 loss (at least it’s a nice round number?) but he conveniently leaves out at this moment and frankly for the rest of the book that the fire is mostly his fault.

Alec’s father is bummed out, obviously, but it’s fine, really.

“Of course, Black Minx,” Mr. Ramsay said quickly and simply. “I should have thought of her immediately. But then you and Henry have told me so little of her chances in the coming Preakness.”

HOLD UP.

HOLD ON JUST A MINUTE.

We need to have a conversation about timeline, people.

The Black Stallion’s Filly was four books ago. In between, I think we can yank The Black Stallion’s Sulky Colt and The Island Stallion Races out of the timeline because they don’t deal directly with the ongoing narrative. But you know what happened in between Filly and this book? The Black Stallion Revolts. You know, when the Black caused a plane crash and Alec wandered around the desert with amnesia for how many weeks?

Not that many weeks, apparently, because it happened in between the Derby and the Preakness! There are context clues later on that indicate that Revolts did indeed happen in that ~5 weeks (people remark on the Black’s scars, which are a major part of the narrative of Revolts, but no one mentions “that time that Alec and the Black vanished”?).

SO THAT’S INSANE.

Anyway, Alec doesn’t have all that much confidence in Black Minx – he’s never been her biggest fan – so he decides the Black is going to come back to racing. Gone are all the concerns about trivial matters like “not being a registered Thoroughbred” (though I guess they got over that one in order to breed him?) and “he tries to murder other horses.” Like totally gone. Not only does no one mention them, the Black never puts a foot wrong in this entire book. He is totally devoid of personality. It’s one of the biggest flaws in this otherwise pretty good book.

Black Minx is not trending well, which is exasperating Henry, who keeps stomping around insisting that he’s going to figure out what’s wrong.

It wasn’t really the filly’s loafing through her works that bothered him. And it had nothing to do with her legs, her speed or her stamina. It was her eyes. They told him, just as if she’d spoken, that she was bored with racing, that anything after her glorious win in the Kentucky Derby would be an anti-climax. But how int he world could he have explained that to Henry?

The book continues to juggle two narratives from now on. The first is what exactly is going on with Black Minx – why isn’t she racing the way she did in the Derby? The second is bringing the Black back to the racetrack when the handicapper keeps putting more and more weight on him. A major subplot of both narratives is the three year old champion Eclipse who everyone thinks is the greatest thing since sliced bread for no discernible reason, and the five year old champion Casey.

Farley actually juggles these two narratives with a fairly deft hand, though Henry doesn’t come out of it looking like roses – mostly like an asshole who yells a lot. It moves back and forth constantly, and there’s enough racing action to balance out the endless “But whyyyyyyyy won’t Minx just run?” whining and the everyone freaking out about how much weight the Black is carrying.

A lot of the suspicions about Black Minx are weirdly gendered.

[Alec] took a large silk handkerchief from his pocket and rubbed her coal-black coat. Like a lady, she seemed to love the touch of silk, too. He had found that it pacified her more than anything else.

Grossssssss.

I feel at this point, though, that I should mention that poor Satan is basically chopped liver in the background of all of this. Seriously, you guys, you have the TRIPLE CROWN WINNER in your barn and you are so broke you need to rely on winning races to earn money? WORST BUSINESS PLAN EVER. All indications are that they’re not studding Satan out. They’re using him only on their own mares. And so literally the only horses they have that can race are Minx and the Black. Can you imagine if his owners had taken American Pharoah back and said “nah, we’re good, gonna use him on like 12 mares a year that we own personally”? NUTS.

So you see what I mean by a genuinely enjoyable book with total insanity going on in the background? Come to think of it, that’s the same thing you could say about The Black Stallion and Satan. I think Walter Farley might have a winning formula here.

Black Minx runs third in the Preakness after running a mediocre race and getting beat by Eclipse, and Alec floats his theory of why she’s not running well: he thinks she’s in love with Wintertime, a bay colt that featured in her book as a competitor. They do some experimenting over the course of the book and not to spoil you, but Alec turns out to be right. Minx won’t pass Wintertime, and she only works well when they’re worked together. He also goes off his grain when she’s stabled too far away. TRUE LOVE.

So of course Henry decides to buy Wintertime for $20,000, or almost exactly the sum of money they’ve managed to earn so far, because…they need another stud? FUCKING TRIPLE CROWN WINNER IN YOUR FUCKING BARN, HENRY.

You guys, I’ve been on the fence but I’d like to announce that I am 100% on Team Satan from now on. It started with the insane breaking and continued with the fat-shaming and the daddy issues and now he is just getting shat on by exclusion constantly.

Ugh. Anyway. While they’ve been trying to figure out Black Minx (those women, you know, you just never know what’s going on in their brains! is not too much of a stretch to read into her whole subplot), the Black has been humming along.

First, he crushes the field in a race of seven furlongs, because remember how Alec told Black Minx her sire was the best “distance” racer of all time? Oh yeah, he’s a sprinter too. But that win sets him up to carry a lot of weight in his future races, and Henry stomps around and yells a lot about how unfair it all is.

I feel like I should also mention that Casey (the champion five year old) is ridden by some kind of extra from The Quiet Man who is one of Henry’s besties.

“‘Tis likin’ the ride I gave him they are and no one else will sit on him but me. Now ’tis later in the mornin’ than I like to be gettin’ to work even for a Sunday. So please get on with you.”

Vaguely racist stereotyping aside, his name is Michael Costello and he’s kind of great when he’s not talking. Some of the best scenes in the book are him strategizing the race and being wayyyyyyyyy smarter than Alec.

There are a couple of other interesting themes in the book, like:

  • Henry getting older, and feeling both fragile and overlooked; he clearly gets angry a lot of the time because he’s worried about his relevance.
  • Billy Watts, Wintertime’s jockey, burning out on the danger of being a jockey and there was a bit with him in a race when I almost couldn’t bear to read because I was so terrified that Walter Farley would kill him, but no fear, he retires and becomes Hopeful Farm’s new foaling manager. He’s a nice guy and all but the fuck does he know about mares and foals?
  • What makes a great horse? Is it speed or a way of going or a type or a certain look or the competition he faces? There’s a lot of debate about this and it’s good!
  • What is a handicapper’s job and how does he do it? There was a chapter in the head of the handicapper that everyone was railing against as he thought about why he gave Eclipse basically no weight and the Black an obscene amount of weight (146 pounds in his final race).

I know, right?!? There’s a lot going on in this book!

The book leads, as we all knew it would, to what is basically a match race between Eclipse, Casey, and the Black. It’s a GREAT race. It’s just as exciting and well-written as the Black’s original match race with Sun Raider and Cyclone. (Haha, remember them? No one else does!)

The Black wins, of course, but he’s pushed HARD to do it, both in terms of Alec’s strategy and his own physical endurance. You’re left feeling for maybe the first time ever that the Black was stretched to the absolute limit. Which is a really cool thing.

So there you have it! Maybe not as much snark as usual, but I actually had a lot of fun reading it, so there’s that.

Do you remember this book? Do you also think it’s dumb that Black Minx started refusing to race without her boyfriend? Are you on Team Satan with me?

black stallion series · Uncategorized

Summer Series: The Island Stallion Races

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Two aliens from another world enter the secret valley of Azul Island and offer Steve an opportunity for Flame to compete against the world’s fastest race horses.

Okay. Here we go, people. This is what we’ve been training for. *cracks knuckles*

This is the third Island Stallion book, and the third summer that Steve Duncan is spending on Azul Island. This year, Pitch is off in New York working on his endless hero-worship Conquistador research, so Steve is alone on the island, which as far as he’s concerned is the way life should be: just him, Flame, and the weird Blue Valley herd of horses.

Speaking of the horses, the colt that we agonized over so much in the last book never did end up going home with Steve or more accurately his parents gave his dumb plan a giant thumbs down and said they were either paying for a horse or for him to jaunt off to the Caribbean every summer and Steve chose the latter. Honestly that is the best parenting so far in the entire series. Bravo, Mr. and Mrs. Duncan!

Speaking of the magical Flame:

As always, Flame marveled when after a few swallows, Flame left the pool to rejoin his band. Hot as he was, thirsty as he was, this wild stallion would drink very little when overheated. Steve wondered how many domestic horses would have left the cool water as Flame had done.

Remember in the last book when the Black drank cold water and colicked so hard he caused a plane crash? I can’t tell if Walter Farley is trying to tell us Flame is smarter than the Black or if he even thinks his plots/story arcs through that much?

On the other hand, Azul Island sounds PRETTY GREAT.

It was a world free of every care except the care of horses.

Yes, please.

So, Steve swans around the island getting settled into his campsite, thinking a lot about what he’s going to eat and when, and riding Flame around very fast and thinking about how very fast Flame is. Late in the day, a weird golden light appears and Steve jumps to the most obvious conclusion.

A sun where there had been no sun. The end of the world had come!

The world, unfortunately for the readers, does not end but there’s a weird sequence where Steve sort of…blacks out while seeing his life flash before his eyes. When he wakes up, he convinces himself the light was a meteor and runs to the top of the cliffs to see if the ocean is boiling. Which it is not. Because that’s not really a thing that happens after a meteor strike.

What he see is a complicated and poorly described thing that is either a flat metal disc on the surface of the ocean, or a glowing light, or a needle-shaped floating object, or maybe a combination of two or three of those things depending on the moment in the narrative.

Clearly it’s not that exciting, though, because he goes to bed and then wakes up the next morning thinking again about Flame and how very fast he is and how there was a poster he saw advertising a race in Havana that was “OPEN TO THE WORLD” and how that really should mean Azul Island, too! Steve has little to no concept of hyperbole.

All this playing around isn’t enough to entirely distract him, though, and he returns to the cliffs to stare at the thing in the distance a bit more, but gets scared and returns through the caves and has a weird…sort of…hallucinatory experience. He hears voices. He follows the voices and in the Conquistador dining room he finds two men in business suits.

“Come in, Steve,” one voice said suddenly. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

And this is when the book goes completely off the rails.

The two men are named Jay and Flick and they are both kind of insane. They’re pretty clearly aliens, to the reader anyway, but Steve is either too stupid or too traumatized to realize this and we have to read an awful lot of weird banter between the two men that is frankly somewhat confusing and annoying to follow, like, Walter Farley, if you’re going to have two aliens randomly show up on Azul Island GO BIG OR GO HOME.

Anyway, they’re not just aliens, they’re creepy telepathic aliens who kind of spend the rest of the book mind-raping Steve. I’m not really kidding.

How long it was before he could see their faces again, he could not have told. But suddenly he was asking himself how anyone could look at these two men and think anything but good of them. Flick was smiling, pleased and happy that Steve trusted them completely, that he now felt confident no one, no country, had anything to fear from them.

Steve goes from so scared he’s catatonic to happy-go-lucky about aliens in the space of that one paragraph and I think it bears saying that THIS IS NOT OKAY.

I also feel like I need to say that: I am not opposed to science fiction. The vast majority of what I read for pleasure falls into the science fiction/fantasy category. I am totally down with aliens. I am totally down with moral gray areas, clashes of interstellar ideology, and general weirdness.

This is not really that; we never get a sense of a truly alien presence in either Jay or Flick. They’re just annoying creepos who descend on Steve and all of a sudden he is doing things that are TOTALLY INSANE. Honestly, given the way Jay and Flick mentally manipulate him from their first meeting I think there’s a good argument that nothing that follows is really consensual.

But I digress. Back to Azul Island, where Jay natters on about anything and everything and how he’s such a big horse racing fan except he’s also kind of an idiot? He lacks any kind of powers of observation and yet thinks he’s an expert and keeps showing up and saying things like

“But let’s talk about horses, Steve. Flame is a very beautiful animal and you sit him well.”

It’s kind of hard to explain in a recap like this how supremely weird everything Jay says about horses is. It’s all just off in a skin-crawling kind of way. Like he has this whole rant about the way jockeys ride their horses, standing up in their stirrups, that is supposed to be the narrative’s clue that he’s accidentally been away from Earth for 50 years, but it’s just so weird and oddly delivered.

Jay is constantly proposing things that make Steve really uncomfortable.

Still eager and with overwhelming curiosity Jay asked, “Would you like to fly, Steve? It’s the easiest thing and the most fun of all. Listen to what I have to say now. You must relax a bit more and help me. Make your mind a blank. Forget everything you’ve ever known in this world you call Earth. Forget all you’ve ever seen and been told. Now, Steve…”

Steve felt a heavy blackness come swiftly to his mind, claiming it for its very own. He fought it as he had never fought anything before. There was no pain but he writhed in agony and his arms flayed the air fighting nothing. He opened his mouth to yell, but no sound emerged.

You may ask yourself, why is Steve still hanging out with these creepos? GOOD QUESTION. NO ANSWER. The whole next chunk of the book is Steve trying to return to a semblance of normal life for an hour or two, and then one of the aliens – mostly Jay – popping up to do skeevy things. He even blackmails poor Flick into letting him do all sorts of things that keep escalating. (Apparently Flick went to some other planet he wasn’t allowed.)

Escalation reaches fever pitch when Jay decides he’s going to the international race in Havana that Steve was thinking about earlier, and then he comes up with his most batshit insane idea yet.

“Why don’t you and Flame come too, Steve? You can race him! That’s what you wanted, wasn’t it? We’d have plenty of room in the ship.”

Jay’s words couldn’t be shrugged off as sheer folly! For how often had he dreamed of racing Flame?

NO, STEVE. WAVE OFF. BAD IDEA.

“I accept Jay and Flick from [Alula], not as deadly, threatening enemies to our very existence, but as good and kind friends touring other worlds in much the same manner as we visit other states and countries. I accept all this, and having accepted it I have nothing to fear except what I’ve learned to fear in my own world.”

That last sentence is like the perfect example of something someone writes to sound smart but on the tiniest examination is just DUMB.

Steve writes down everything he’s seen and done with Jay and Flick and Jay gaslights the everloving fuck out of him. Steve asks him if he minds writing and Jay says no! it’s adorable that you write things! you know no one will ever believe you, right? tee-hee!

In case you hadn’t noticed yet JAY IS A FUCKING SOCIOPATH.

Steve announces that he doesn’t want to race Flame after all, because he’s worried about taking the stallion out of his natural environment, which is the kind of intelligent, sensitive, and mature decision that has NO place in these books, so of course within a page or two Jay has talked him into it after all.

Well, first he makes sure that Steve has seen a few races (he has) and that Steve knows Flame is faster.

“After all, we wouldn’t want to go to the work of getting him there and then have him lose the race. It would be a terrible disappointment for both of us.”

Yes, Jay, the worst thing that could happen when two aliens take a wild stallion from his isolated island and drop him into the middle of a race is for him to lose and embarrass you.

Of course they decide to bring Flame to the race, but it turns out that Flame has “closed his mind” to Jay and Flick, and they can’t mentally manipulate him, so they enlist Steve’s help to make them seem like best buds and…I don’t even know, you guys, this whole thing makes zero sense. I guess it works, though, because then the aliens give Steve a magic bridle.

Yup. You read that right.

Only it wasn’t a rope at all. It was as soft as flesh and just as pliant. It had no weight and yet there was a great deal of it, fashioned in the shape of a hackamore, complete with reins. It had no color at all, and yet contained the most brilliant of all colors. The fibers pulsated beneath his fingers, seemingly alive and warm.

Anyone else feel nauseated at the idea of reins that are a) warm, b) pulsating, and c) “soft as flesh and just as pliant”?

Steve keeps trying to bring up logic and Jay keeps gaslighting and/or manipulating him.

“If it’s an open race, it’s open to any horse in the world which may want to race in it. You have every legal right to race Flame. You can demand it!”

“But I still have to answer their questions. And they’ll ask where we’re from.”

“You and Flame are from this world, aren’t you?” Jay demanded. “That’s all that is necessary to tell them.”

…yes, that’s all it takes to enter a horse in a race HOW DOES THIS KEEP GETTING CRAZIER.

Off they go to Cuba, which requires the following steps:

  • get Flame into the launch, the small boat that Steve used to get to the island
  • get Flame into the larger ship
  • get Flame into a smaller cruiser that then flies to Cuba
  • settle Flame into a stall for the first time

Yeah it’s just as bizarre as it seems. Flame refuses to eat hay, for example, which – I honestly can’t figure out if that’s just dumb or not? I feel like it is, but maybe a horse that’s never ever seen hay really wouldn’t get it at first?! Please help me figure out where to land on this one!

Jay heads off to Havana to enter Flame in the race and…I can only guess continues to use his telepathy to manipulate people because he has a whole series of conversations like this but gets into the race anyway:

“If you won’t tell me what time they go to the post, I’ll get the information from your secretary,” he said curtly.

“But this race is by invitation only,” the man said.

“Your posters made no mention of that condition,” he said sternly. “No mention that you’d only the horses you wanted to race in the International. You advised the public that the International Race was Open to the World.”

That is a loophole you could drive a Mack truck through. “Oh, it didn’t say I couldn’t do this on the poster, so therefore I can do it!”

Go ahead, try it! Show up at Kentucky and say “Well there was nothing on the poster that said I couldn’t come so LET ME AT THAT HEAD OF THE LAKE!”

Somehow, though, the race organizers think this will be a great publicity idea. Just splendid! Think of all the attention it will get them to have a rando horse that they’ve never laid eyes on show up at absolutely the last second and race! Jesus. At least the Black ‘s match race had months of build-up and hype!

Meanwhile, Steve is pondering things like “how am I going to control Flame in this race?” and “what if people recognize me?” and “how do I even ride a horse in a race?”

Wasn’t it the most natural thing in the world to wonder if every move he made in the race would come instinctively, without thought or plan?

WHAT THE FUCK, STEVE, NO. “Gee, I wonder if this insanely dangerous and stupid thing I’m about to do will just come instinctively to me? Or should I put some thing into what I’m doing? Nah. Let’s just let nature do its thing.”

They get to the track at the absolute last second, sort of after the post parade, at which point Jay announces that the alien ship has to leave very soon so unless Steve hurries it up Jay is going to abandon him and Flame in Havana. Like this race needed any more tension.

The starter gets so close to being the first sane character in the book but then veers off.

[Flame] wore nothing but a rope hackamore with two long golden tassels hanging from it. His rider was sitting bareback and wore no silks, just T-shirt and jeans. Strange, very strange indeed.

“Strange.” Yes. You could say that.

Somehow Flame gets into the gate and they are off and holy mackerel, people, this race is an absolute shitstorm of insanity.

First things first, Flame isn’t interested in running fast so much as he is in killing all the other horses in the race. Pretty explicitly.

[Flame] hesitated a second, wondering why the other stallion did not turn upon him so they could rise together in deadly combat.

Steve then realizes the only way to make Flame run is to keep redirecting his attention on the next horse ahead of him in hopes that his horse will want to run them down and murder them.

“Go, Flame!” he screamed, kindling the fire of Flame’s natural hatred for his own kind, encouraging him to run the others down! Only by taking advantage of the generations of breeding behind Flame could he hope to make a race of it.

…He was encouraging Flame to attack and attack again while they went ever closer to the front.

In.fucking.sane. Somehow, Steve keeps Flame focused on the next horse, and the next horse, until suddenly they’re in front and uh-oh, no more potential murder targets! Whatever will they do? Luckily, there’s an outrider ahead!

If the spectators had not known previously that they were witnessing the furious charges of an unbroken stallion, they were aware of it immediately following the end of the race. For the great red horse who had won surged past the finish line like a raging demon. They saw the object of his attack, for the outrider’s pinto horse was rearing high in the air while his rider sought to take him off the track.

All the other owners have to be furious, right? They all shipped their horses to Cuba and entered this race in good faith and at the last second the organizers sprung an unbroken murder machine on them that won the race and then tried to kill an outrider’s horse and WHAT THE HELL.

They won, so I guess Steve should be happy, except he’s really not because the race was a total nightmare. It’s not fun to revel in how fast your horse is going when you’re mostly thinking about whether or not it will slaughter the other horses.

Somehow, he directs Flame off the track, and they basically sprint to the horse van and drive back to the farm they leased. They lead all the reporters who were at the race on a merry chase through the woods and all the reporters watch as they all go into an invisible something and then vanish themselves. Yeah.

Well, they get back to Azul Island without further incident, and just before he heads off into the sunset Jay tells Steve that part of the reason he likes visiting Earth is that the aliens have somehow gotten rid of all animals on their planet which…like…are they all vegetarians now? do they even have an ecosystem? how do you get rid of ALL animals? all of them? what.the.fuck?

Ugh. Anyway. Jay and the spaceship vanish and…the next morning Steve wakes up and decides it’s all been a dream. Way to gut the consequences of your whole book, Walter Farley.

BUT WAIT!

Remember Pitch, who’s off in New York researching and being his usual weird self about how great the Conquistadors are?

He held the book close to his thin chest thinking how little Ray must know about Spanish-American history to believe anything in New York could be as interesting. Why, nothing could be so exciting as reading about those Spanish conquests!

I feel like I hammer this point into the ground with every Island Stallion book but: rape! genocide! cultural destruction! imperialism! none of these things are cause for excitement, Pitch!

Anyway, Pitch stops to buy a paper and lo and behold! Steve and Flame are on the front page, winning the International! It did happen after all! Pitch heads straight to the airport and back home without even returning his library book, he’s so shocked.

And that’s how we end.

Whew.

Well? Did you remember the aliens? Do you think redirecting murderous impulses is a good race strategy?

black stallion series · Uncategorized

Summer Series: The Black Stallion’s Sulky Colt

Editorial note: In theory, today would be a Finance Friday, and the next Black Stallion book is The Black Stallion Revolts. I’m re-publishing a 2014 review I did of The Black Stallion’s Sulky Colt because I had Lasik surgery last Friday, and screens are still a little tough. I should be able to get back on track for next week!

The Black Stallion’s Sulky Colt
Walter Farley

Oh, boy. I bought this for $2 at a used book store because of the cover: I couldn’t resist. Hands-down my favorite cover era for the Black Stallion books. I had vaguely positive memories of The Blood Bay Colt and Jimmy and Tom and ever-so-vague memories of this book, so this would be good, right?

Wrong. Oh, it wasn’t bad, in the way of that Island Stallion book with the aliens (YES REALLY), but nor was it a Black Stallion and Satan, or The Black Stallion’s Filly, either.

Let me summarize this book for you.

Tom is an asshole.
Alec is an asshole.
Henry is an asshole.
Jimmy is an asshole.
Bonfire puts up with them all.

So let me back up. This book picks up after the storyline of The Blood Bay Colt. Bonfire, the second son of the Black (out of a harness mare named Volo Queen, because why not breed your nutjob mystery stallion to a Standardbred) has moved from the county fair circuit to the big time, and is prepping for the Hambletonian. One night, Alec Ramsay decides to go see Bonfire race; it just so happens that during the race he watches, Bonfire gets into a bad wreck. Thereafter, Bonfire is nervous and jumpy and seemingly ruined for harness racing.

If you’e ever read a single Black Stallion book, you don’t need me to tell you what happens next. If you haven’t, know that Alec takes over the reins and mysteriously a) is instantly an expert sulky driver and b) gets his driving license by magic after Tom is injured. Despite unexplained and bizarre prejudices against harness racing, Henry Dailey arrives on scene to save the day. Alec and Henry help Bonfire overcome his (um, totally justified) fear, thanks to a clever mechanical hood & blinker arrangement, and then win the Hambletonian. Shocking, right? (Yeah, no.)

Things that annoyed me about this book:
– all the characters who were not horses
– Henry’s bizarro prejudices
– the way Alec and Henry came into the harness racing world and never asked anyone to explain their training techniques, simply forged ahead with their own and were of course miraculously succesful
– the deification of Alec and Henry
– how poor Tom was basically turned into a demon for plot purposes
– how horrible everyone was to the horses, while outwardly talking about being gentle and easing them along and blah blah

Things that I really liked about this book:
– Walter Farley writes a racing scene second to none; all of Bonfire’s races were genuinely exciting and tense
– quirky horse antics! I never get tired of quirky horse antics in these books
– it was a short, straightforward story told relatively well

Anyone else read this one? Thoughts?

black stallion series · Uncategorized

Summer Series: The Black Stallion’s Filly

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After Satan retires, Alec and Henry find themselves without a horse to race. Henry buys Black Minx, the Black’s first daughter, and together they help her overcome her fears and race in the Kentucky Derby.

On the surface, this is a really simple, straightforward book. Black Minx (and apparently she has no barn name. She’s always either “the filly” or “Black Minx”) was poorly brought up and poorly trained, and Alec and Henry rehabilitate her and aim her toward the Kentucky Derby.

Here’s a scientific equation about the makeup of this book:

40% Alec taking long, slow gallops around the track + 20% exposition through weird training stuff + 30% watching races on television or reading recaps of them in newspaper articles + 10% actual action. That’s 100% of a book, I guess. There must be literally a dozen long paragraphs or entire chapters in which Alec says “another long slow gallop, I guess, Henry must know what he’s doing!”

Fear not, though. Black Stallion books are all alike; every Black Stallion book is batshit crazy in its own way.

In this book, the batshittery is not in the small details (like, say, the Island Stallion books) but rather in the overall picture. Henry buys Minx (that’s right, I’m giving the poor mare a barn name) at an auction in late November with no manners, little to no training, little to no condition, and they race her in the Kentucky Derby. The small details of this book are all awfully good! It’s maybe a bit boring, but it’s still really charming, generally, and then you realize again that the timeline is completely fucking insane and you kind of get jarred right out of that charm.

Strap yourselves in and let’s go back to the beginning of the book.

Satan, the Black’s son, is retiring from racing after a fractured sesamoid. Which is a real thing that really happens, and the way it’s reported in Jim Neville (our old friend!)’s newspaper article sounds thoroughly plausible. It’s almost weird to start off so sensibly and understandably, and that kind of sets the tone for the rest of the book.

For you Satan fans, fear not, Alec still fat-shames and daddy-complexes the poor horse at every opportunity.

Satan’s neck is shorter and more muscular. And his body is so heavy that it gives you the feeling of grossness.

ffs, Alec. But, kind of, spoiler alert: he spends this whole book, too, comparing Minx to the Black, both favorably and unfavorably. In fact, he’s really down on the poor filly pretty much the whole time.

Satan arrives home at Hopeful Farm, and Henry a) goes waaaaaaaaaaay over the top in transport, driving 24 hours straight personally and harassing the guys who are supposed to be helping him constantly and b) mopes around and to Alec’s total non-surprise, announces he’s going to find a horse to race for the coming season.

(Total side note, but it baffled and irked me at this point: Mrs. Dailey got fridged! She is totally, 100% absent from this narrative, Henry lives some kind of weird bachelor life in an above-barn apartment, and though they talk about his retirement they never talk about her role in it! She was an actual walking-talking-speaking character in previous books and she’s just GONE!)

Henry jaunts off to …I think it’s supposed to be Keeneland, but all they keep saying is “Kentucky.” Anyway, he hangs out at the auction for a while, watching a gray colt go for the unheard-of sum of $62,000, and we meet Tom Flint for the first time.

Flint was wealthy, but unlike most owners he trained his own horses. He didn’t hire someone else to do all the work and then sit on the sidelines until it was time to collect the trophies.

Flint sounds like a micromanaging nightmare. Also: can we talk a little bit about how each Black Stallion book exists in its own microcosm of the racing world? In every single book, all of the owners, jockeys, trainers, and horses are 100% different. It’s like the whole rest of the world is episodic and only Alec et al get continuity. When you really stop and think about it, it’s totally wild. And it means we have to get re-introduced to a whole new cast of characters every single time. There’s never “so-and-so, you know, who owned Sun Raider” who has a fancy new horse.

Henry buys Black Minx, who everyone else thinks is kind of a shit (on account of how in her only race ever she bolted sideways, went through the rail, and dumped her jockey), and brings her home.

At home, Alec gives us our first glimpse into how weird farm operations at Hopeful Farm are.

He would turn the horses out later in the morning if it didn’t rain. Mud wouldn’t hurt them any. But a cold rain falling on their backs at the same time would invite any number of illnesses.

I have so many questions about Alec’s thinking here I almost don’t even know how to start, but I’m going to let it stand for itself, except to say: Alec really doesn’t know all that much about taking care of horses.

Henry announces his plan to race Minx in the Kentucky Derby, and Alec has the money line of the entire book and introduces the central tension of the whole narrative.

When Alec spoke again he had regained full control of his voice. “It’s almost December,” he said calmly, “and in five months, you’re going to have rid this filly of her bad manners and have her trained and ready to go a mile and a quarter?”

ALEC SPEAKS FOR ALL OF US.

He gets on the horse anyway, and he kind of likes her! Except because he’s Alec, he can’t stop comparing her to the Black. Oh, and poor Satan, too.

She had gone smoothly into her gallop, so much like the Black and so unlike Satan, whose first movements were heavy and ponderous…

Well, why shouldn’t she be able to go the distance? Alec asked himself. Wasn’t her sire the greatest distance runner of them all?

sigh.

Poor Minx doesn’t seem to have any fire or will to compete, though. She never digs in and tries to run away with him, which Alec interprets as total failure. I say she wants to be an eventer. But this is a Black Stallion book, so a) Alec has long angsty monologues (for like the next 75 pages) about how poorly she reflects on the Black and b) damn it, she’s going to race anyway.

Minx’s ground manners still aren’t entirely improved, and after she’s been working on the track for a while Henry turns to address her biting in particular in what might be one of the greatest sequences in this entire series. He keeps an eye on her while he’s grooming her to get her pattern down, and then he boils a potato. While it’s still hot he has a loooooooooooong conversation with Alec about how to un-spoil her. Somehow, miraculously, the potato is still hot when he puts it up his sleeve and goes back down to Minx’s stall.

Black Minx reached for Henry and there was no stopping this time. She bit his bulging arm!

Her head came back fast, her eyes showing how startled she was. Henry never stopped his grooming to look at her. But Alec was watching. She had bitten squarely into the boiled potato. Her lips were drawn back and her mouth was working frantically. She kept it open and her incessant blowing filled the stall. Alec couldn’t help smiling at her surprise and bewilderment.

All the while Henry continued working.

HOW GREAT IS THAT? I love it so much. That scene right there is what has stuck with me since the first time I read this book. It’s smart, charming, full of personality, it’s a good bit of characterization for all three of them, and gah. It’s just the best.

It also gives us this amazing Milton Menasco illustration of the scene.

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So, so, so great.

Okay. Gushing over. Minx’s mouthiness is cured by the hot potato, but her speed is still distinctly lacking. Pretend we’ve all just read like 50 pages of Alec being snarky and whiny and just not convinced that any of this is a good idea. I’ll wait.

Okay! Now that we’ve done that: Henry has a plan. And it’s a plan I am genuinely interested in your opinions on. See, Henry thinks that because Minx is just so darn ornery, she wants to do the opposite of whatever you want her to do. So he tells Alec to fake that she’s running away with him. He does that.

No longer did he cluck in her ear, urging her to gallop faster. Instead his words were a constant stream of whoa’s which served only to drive her on to greater speed. The wind cut his face. He wanted to smile but couldn’t. He worked his hands against her mouth, but this, too, only made her go faster.

I mean. It works for them. But apparently this horse will never do anything ever but race? Maybe it’s a 1960s attitude toward racehorses, but can you imagine trying to restart this mare off-track when she’s been trained to go faster when she thinks you’ve lost control?!?!? Is there some clever nuance I’m missing here or is this a monumentally bad idea?

(Let’s all be honest though, in Black Stallion terms it’s still like a 2 out of 10 on the Bad Idea Scale. It’s no Henry roping Satan to the ground, is all I’m saying.)

It works, though. Minx starts breezing, presumably faster, but they only do it like three times and Alec never asks for her times. So. Let’s just all trust in Henry and assume she’s going fast enough to make sense as a Derby contender.

The next 50 or so pages are given over to long, obsessive, agonizing speculation over exactly who else is going to race in the Derby. There are a bunch of other horses. We’re treated to Walter Farley’s descriptions of Alec and Henry watching races on television. Yeah, it’s exactly as boring as it sounds.

In between, though, we learn some more about the operations of Hopeful Farm. Let me sketch it out for you. Hopeful Farm is a breeding and training farm in upstate New York. It stands one, now two, stallions and has an unspecified number of mares. (Let’s say 20+ based on context clues.) Total employees? Alec and three part-time guys. And Henry when he’s around but he doesn’t seem to do anything with any other horse except Black Minx. Alec is business manager, exercise rider, barn manager, stallion & breeding shed manager, he’s the first call for foal watch, he’s making daily decisions about turnout and doing stalls, and oh also he’s their main jockey.

The next few nights, like the days, were busy ones for Alec. Three mares foaled on successive nights. Two of the mares were owned by outside patrons, and the sires of the foals resided in Kentucky.

ALEC IS TWENTY FOUR YEARS OLD. HE KNOWS NEXT TO NOTHING ABOUT HORSES. WHO THE FUCK SHIPS THEIR BRED MARE FROM KENTUCKY TO FOAL OUT AT THIS HALF-ASSED OPERATION. JESUS CHRIST.

Presumably managing stud duties for Satan ALONE is a full-time job, right? He won the Triple Crown and the Breeder’s Cup Classic and literally everything else ever. Plus the Black. Does Alec even sleep?????

Onward and upward to yet another race on tv, during which we learn that horses used to be waaaaaaay smaller.

Looking at him now you might think he is a small horse, but he isn’t. He stands a little over fifteen hands.

Oh and also we learn about this totally insane contraption.

This [run-out] bit, ladies and gentleman, is so designed that when the colt is running straight he has only a smooth plate against the right side of his mouth, but if he pushes out there are sharp prongs that are brought into play which stick him. It sounds cumbersome but it isn’t.

WHAT THE ACTUAL EVERLOVING FUCK

THIS IS A REAL THING, PEOPLE

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YOU CAN BUY IT FOR $162

Someone, anyone, please enlighten me. Are these really still used? Are there any possible imaginable circumstances under which this is not just horrific cruelty? Am I just totally being a delicate flower here? Anyone???

Moving on to other crazy training decisions:

“I’ll break her from it next week. One or two breaks should be enough. Too much gate work does more harm than good.”

They’re proceeding on the basic assumption that Minx’s basic training was sound. You know, the previous basic training that led her to be a total shit on the ground and also to run through the rail in her first race.

When they do get around to sending her out of the gate, surprise, she is not good with it at all. She hates the door closing behind her.

Small piece of backstory that I have not yet mentioned: Minx has a docked tail. When she was a yearling, a kid slammed a door shut on her tail and broke it, and part of the dock had to be removed.

Alec and Henry come up with an unorthodox solution.

“You mean if we gave her a false tail she’d – ”

“- have something to fling around,” Alec finished for him. “She might even forget all about not having had one for so long. And even if it didn’t help quiet her down in the gate, she’d have a switch to keep the flies away from her this summer.”

“But it might work in the gate, too, Alec,” Henry said quickly. “She might forget fast that she ever had an accident.”

https://gph.is/1zQV4vq

Surprise, surprise, the tail thing works, and gets us to this immortal description of Minx.

She’s a high-headed gal with a complex.

That is like my new personal motto, right there.

Off they go to the Derby, and we get a reminder that Alec basically spends this entire series of books suffering from PTSD.

Pressure and tension were mounting within him. And he knew there wouldn’t be any let-up during the days to come. Instead it would get worse. He tried to think of the calmness and tranquility of Hopeful Farm. But it didn’t help. It seemed that Hopeful Farm had never existed. He was being swept into the all-engulfing whirlpool of the Kentucky Derby, and there was nothing he could do about it.

Henry decides to enter Minx into one race on the Thursday before the Derby, something we would consider insane today, but all the other horses lined up for the Derby have been racing practically weekly.

The race…does not go well. She gets bumped pretty good, goes down, and Alec goes flying. Then she takes off galloping away and they have trouble catching her, which aside from being super-embarrassing seems like a really bad thing to happen three days before the Derby? What do I know, though, Henry thinks it means she’s in fine fettle and she can go the mile and a quarter.

Then we come to the race itself, which, you know what, for all that the television races earlier in the book are boring, the race itself is actually exciting. All that endless exposition at least got us familiar with the jockeys and horses that Alec now comes face to face with in the Derby, and allows him to make this scintillating analysis.

Boys became men riding a Derby, or they remained forever boys.

…okay? that makes…not a whole lot of sense, but…sure, Alec…

It’s an exciting race with a foregone conclusion, though: Black Minx wins the Kentucky Derby! She gets over her need to fight in order to tap into her speed, but she also gets kicked at the starting gate and by all accounts has an foreleg gushing blood through the whole race. It’s cool, though, they take the win photo before treating the leg. Real nice win photo, guys.

She’s fine, though, thankfully, and after all that work, finally gets some well-deserved treats. Aaaand…curtain.

Whew.

What did you think? Do you have any memories of this one? Is the hot potato scene one of your favorites too?

black stallion series · book review · Uncategorized

Summer Series: The Island Stallion’s Fury

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.

Image result for island stallion fury

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.

NO REALLY.

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?