Review (of sorts): The Eighty Dollar Champion by Elizabeth Letts

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I got this book through my local library’s Overdrive e-book collection (epub).

The Eighty Dollar Champion: Snowman, the Horse that Inspired a Nation by Elizabeth Letts (pub 2011)

While I liked the story, I was not too fond of the writing and organization some of the time. It’s not horrible but I don’t think it’s the greatest either.

I liked that this was essentially a rescue horse. I liked that the horse was so calm (even calmer than 26-year-old Czar, the horse I currently ride). I thought Snowman’s escapades were hilarious. I loved that Snowman was essentially a novice lesson horse (and in the first year…for flat-only). But the writing irked me somehow.

Obviously (too obviously), it was written a general public audience. There were times that I really wonder if the author has ridden and apparently, she has a strong riding background but somehow it doesn’t show in the book.  In chapter 2, she writes “He let the reins slide out between his fingers, almost all the way to the buckle that joined the two pieces. If the gelding startled and took off now, Harry would have no way of controlling him” (p25-26, ebook ed).  What? Can’t you quickly scoop up your reins? Sort of?  Sure it’s harder perhaps and maybe impossible if he galloped off (but even then the rider would probably scoop up the reins) in blind terror or the reins went up the neck or he just got really, really strong. Still, I wouldn’t have said that  the rider had “no way of controlling him”. Limited? Perhaps. But I don’t know about “no way”.  Hell, I’ve had horses spook during long-rein walks and I’ve managed to gather the reins, slow down and not fall off….if I can do it, anyone can! (I’m not a very good rider, just walk/trot/canter on reasonably calm horses…yes, a horse like Snowman would have been great…even without the crazy jumping prowess!).  I wonder if the writer has been away from the saddle for far too long….

Anyway, for the most part, the chapters are arranged chronologically which is fine.  However, I did not like the chapters which told background and contextual information were their own chapters. Maybe its because I read the source material (Tarr and McShane, The Horse in the City and Green, Horses at Work) already for an essay about a year ago but Chapter 4 seemed to be a summary of some the points about workhorses. I know that. At the same time, during the Madison Square Garden scenes, she fails to give the contextual background of urban horses then and the fact that historically, “urban”  (including New York) actually had a significant amount of livestock. In that way, she failed to weave the contextual and historical information into the narrative and just left it into its own separate sections which gets kind of jarring since it removes the reader from the narrative for at times, the entire chapter (when you start wondering…how is this exactly related? It is but it’s gone on for far too long without making direct connections). This doesn’t really happen in the later chapters but it does happen in the first few chapters (such as chapter 4, chapter 5, and chapter 11 a bit…perhaps more). There are times when she does manage to weave in historical information…so I don’t know what’s with the out-of-narrative historical information chapters. Not enough room or something?

While this is reasonably coherent enough to read and keeps the chapters on topic, having aside chapters is not that elegant.

Also “Eighty dollars” makes the horse seem way cheaper than he actually was at the time.  While the information fluctuates and out-dates too quickly for print, she should have at least contextualized how much money this was. $80 is not a lot of money today. In 1956, it was worth significantly more.  According to various inflation calculators, in 1956, $80 was worth approximately $685.38 in 2013 dollars (maybe more, maybe less). While it is still profoundly cheap for the horse Snowman would become, it’s not exactly pocket change either.

The writing style seems similar to children’s literature. There was already a children’s book on Snowman – although out of print, but I feel that this book isn’t supposed to be a children’s book. So why is the writing style similar to one? I don’t know. There are always way too many mentions of “chomping at the bit”. Really? That pun is old. Writing-wise, it seemed to be unable to decide if it was trying to be a narrative or something more….grounded. The writing is not elegant or subtle enough for a satisfying narrative…it felt too cliche, too simplistic and concrete somehow. Yet, it did not have enough citations or the depth for any sort of academic level inquiry. Still, I found it entertaining that it mentioned mountain climbing in a historical context as that’s what we studied for my environmental history class last year. I knew they were parallels! (I find it easy to make connections across disciplines and mediums and am naturally inclined to do it).

I also liked that she included citations (hmm…I think this book uses Chicago formatting or a variant of it? Wow!) and an transcript of an interview with Harry (although that interview was very, very short). It would be nice if we could have access to some of the primary sources she used. Longer versions that is. It’ll be cool.

However, my criticisms are probably because I’m a very different type of writer (I although I adhere sometimes too strongly too my framework in long writing, I also try to weave things together) and because I’m used to academic reading.  As a horse person (though not a jumper, I don’t don’t jump because…I don’t know anymore but I currently don’t have a horse to jump), I liked the story. As a person with an English/history academic background, I felt the writing could be more elegant (although Snowman was initially clumsy so…maybe that’s a reflection on that…ha!).

I wish there was some sort of link to media of Snowman (and we know it exists because it is mentioned in the book and such, although it’s not old enough yet for public domain) and/or media was included in some way. The words and stills cannot describe the sight of him jumping over another horse!! So here’s a YouTube video (not by me).

Rants on Horse Fiction: The Spirited Horse and Super Rider

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Now, don’t get me wrong. I like horses and literature. I like horse literature – the photo is the majority of the horse fiction that I own from my bookshelf (in the closet…I keep trying to get them out of the closet but nope….my family isn’t very literary) . There a few are missing from the photo, full list of the horse stories I own is here. But admittedly, horse fiction and especially children horse fiction is simply not the greatest literary genre. It also suffers from annoying cliches.

Like the spirited ______  (where the blank is either a horse or a synonym for a horse….like a mare, gelding, stallion, bay, gray, Thoroughbred, Mustang etc).

First of all what is a “spirited horse” exactly?  Oh Prancer (Saddle Club) is a spirited Thoroughbred and Lisa, the least experienced member of the saddle rides her but what exactly does that mean?  Of course it implies that Lisa is an annoyingly good rider through language alone but what does “spirited horse”really mean?

Does it mean that the horse is about to send the rider into orbit soon? Does it mean that the horse is just unwilling to listen? Does it mean that the horse is going to bolt soon? Buck? Is the horse being spooky/nervous? Is the horse just batshit crazy?  Does it mean that the horse is just strong? (Not the same as fast necessarily. Does the horse just stop out of nowhere just because the horse feels like it? Does it just mean that the horse is lively? Or wired? What does it mean?  Does it just mean that the horse is alive (with a spirit)? Does the horse just has personality? What does it mean?

Why are fictional horse characters almost always “spirited”? Why are they rarely placid and calm? Why is it good that they are “spirited”? Whatever that means.

For that matter, why do all  (human) characters always, always effectively have their own spirited horse?  I guess you can argue that it wouldn’t be a horse story without it.  Fair enough. But it drives me nuts that the horse is always this “spirited horse” that requires an “expert” rider.  Still, even characters that explicitly don’t or can’t own a horse (and thus supposedly symbolizes the readers who can’t own horses)….they effectively do have a horse when they seem to have endless access unless they don’t feel like it. What’s that? All the benefits of owning a horse without any of the trappings? Seriously. Whenever they want to ride….”their” horse is there.

For that matter and this extends to all horse fiction (and even non-fiction) media – not just literature is the focus of inherently talented horse people. Why are ALL protagonists in these stories are ALWAYS inherently talented at riding? Even if the protagonist is not a superbly talented rider like in some novel I don’t remember (it was still equestrian fiction but not children lit)….the protagonist is still talented at working with horses and stable management (I think it was Riding Lessons by Sara Guen but I really don’t remember. Edit: It may have been Horseplay! by Judy Reene Singer. Not sure.).  Very rarely do these books have characters that suck at riding and with horses!  And of course if they are not naturally talented, than they are rich.

Also, these characters either grew up riding (and thus, is superb at it) or just picked up the sport yesterday and is so naturally pro at it….such as Lisa in the Saddle Club (and there are passages that outright state that Lisa is not as experienced as the others but quickly caught up) or even, for a non-literary example, Georgie in the Heartland TV series (Season 6).  And course, they are riding “spirited” horses because all riders in the horse fiction world must ride “spirited horses”. And if the horse is normally too well…spirited, somehow their super horse-whispering powers and talent will befriend the horse so the horse is ridable to them. Yes, taming “wild horses” the whole shebang. Seriously?

Oh yes. People like that might exist. I’ve even witnessed it to an extent before. But WHY DOES EVERY CHARACTER IN A HORSE STORY MUST BE SO TALENTED? Why does every horse need to spirited? Why do they rarely get chucked off their “spirited horse”…oh right, they are magically talented. Whatever.  (Maybe Lisa in the Saddle Club TV sarees in an exception as she always gets hurt for various reasons….but only a few times with horses).

I admit I am jealous as I won’t be owning a horse anytime soon in this universe and I am not a very good rider or good with horses (I don’t ride “spirited horses”, usually anyway). I’m experienced (I’m been riding for a long time) but not very advanced and I only ride weekly or at the most (in the past) a few times per week. I didn’t grow up with horses. I’m not talented at all with horses (I’ve even had one bully me around) and I’m in no way a talented rider (I walk/trot/canter in circles and that’s pretty much it….and I’ve been riding for over a decade).

In addition, the calm and placid horse is always presented as the “beginner horse” and is thus, dismissed as such.  (Personally I find lazy horses harder to work but anyway…). Maybe that’s true in real life to an extent. I don’t know. I spook easily so I don’t usually  like crazy horses.  But it annoys me why it must be so in nearly every instance of horse fiction. (Or even non-fiction). It also annoys me that the protagonist must be so talented at riding and with horses. Can’t they just like it without being super talented? Wouldn’t there be more depth if they loved the sport but struggled with it? Maybe. I don’t know. The books that are set in the higher class (like Chestnut Hill by Lauren Brooke) I couldn’t relate to at all with nearly every single character being either super rich and/or super talented at riding. Ugh! Is it a requirement for the genre that the protagonist of a fictional horse story most be either insanely talented and/or rich? Maybe.

Despite all that, I still don’t know what the hell “spirited horse” is supposed to mean because other than a toss of the head (some horses do it…but it doesn’t mean the horse is crazy…could even be lazy and still tossing it!) or the occasional prance, the books usually don’t go into the details.  I get that some of the book authors may not have actually experience with horses like Bonnie Bryant (author of the Saddle Club)…but most of these books are ghost-written! In fact I think the majority of the Saddle Club series/spin offs, Thoroughbred series/spin offs are ghost-written (only a handful written by the officially credited author) and  apparently, Lauren Brooke (the author  of Heartland and Chestnut Hill) is a pen name for a group of ghost-writers (so is not even a real person!).

All that and I still don’t exactly know what a “spirited horse” is and what level of crazy is that supposed to be or what is that supposed to mean.  Anyway, yeah… Wow over 1000 words! I did say it was a rant!

PS: most of my books were bought used and some were ex-library books. I did not steal books from the library. (Although the “juvenile paperback” designation of many of these books in the so-called “cataloging” system is very annoying.)