One book I read over and over and over again was The Black Stallion, by Walter Farley. While I enjoyed several of the books in the series (the latter ones started taking dark and bizarre turns) The Black Stallion was the one I returned to the most. So I'm really happy to talk about it on the blog today and introduce you to Walter Farley's work, if you haven't read it yet.
Our copy is so beat up that the pages are falling out, the cover is crumbling, and you have to read it in sections. It's a book from my mother's childhood that has carried on into ours, and even though my sister had a perfectly good hardback copy, I wouldn't read it. First of all, the blue cover with the black horse is my favorite, and second, the wording is different in her copy. (Even slight wording changes revolt my soul when I'm reading a favorite book.) So I took the crumbly hardback and very lovingly, very carefully, tiptoed through the pages a few at a time.
I knew it almost like the back of my hand, though time had blurred a few of the details. The interesting thing is, it's a children's story, but still with tough things. (Maybe children's stories are these days; I'm out of touch.) Alec, when he's shipwrecked on an island, has to choose between potentially starving and eating the Black. His parents think they've lost their only son for weeks.
But entwined through it all is the heart of what makes it a classic, and in my mind, emotionally gripping tale. It has all the classic elements: shipwreck, wonder horse, national famous horse race, while still applying some very good principles. Another reader described The Black Stallion as a book with a "do hard things" mentality, and that got me thinking. Alec has to be an adult to pursue his dream. He (guess what?) gets up early and works. He works a job to pay for his horse. He takes responsibility and he's required to get good grades at the same time as he's training this masterpiece. Once he has the horse, he doesn't get any easy breaks to either keep it or race it. He has to work from the ground up. He's not a self-centered kid pursuing a self-entitled life. He's a boy that's suddenly on the verge of manhood, and yes, his dream is unconventional, but he's willing to do the conventional work to achieve it.
This slams against a lot of the "dream your dream" mindset today. Alec didn't have to be a highschool dropout, or have uber-rich parents, or become some child of the prophecy. He's normal, and he gets it done by allowing himself to do the responsible things he's supposed to be doing. Even when his big moment comes, his dad requires that he take exams before he's allowed to see if his dream will come true.
Now, all that philosophical thought being said, I've never actually thought about those themes while I read the book. I've been much more interested in the story itself. Alec's wild ride with the Black through the water after the ship sank. His first ride bareback, his rescue, the hurts and starvation he overcame, and his deep affinity with this wild horse. (It goes back to that friendship theme. A friendship between boy and outcast, that runs deeper than anyone else can understand or experience.) Also, the nighttime rides at Belmont, while I don't think I could ever have the conscience to do them myself, were pretty fun.
Perhaps the sheer, glorious adventure coupled with the very mature reality of this story comes because Walter Farley wrote it while he was in highschool. He was in the trenches of exams, just like Alec was, but he let himself dream at the same time--and it comes across in a delightful blend of reality and imagination throughout the story. I would totally hand a kid a book like this. There are a couple of drawbacks. Sometimes Alec keeps secrets from his parents. I was never too keen on that. The use of the word "devil" to describe the horse is sprinkled through fairly frequently, more so than I like. But the overall joy and benefits of the themes of responsibility throughout make it worth the read.
Perhaps it wasn't perfect timing to read right between the molten gold of Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows. The writing style of The Black Stallion is much less poetic. It has a bread-and-butter syntax to it that does the job but doesn't put on frills while it's going about its business. But an awesome kid, with awesome parents, an awesome friend, and an awesome, fearless black horse. What more could you ask for? Highly recommended.