Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Helen Griffiths

Every now and then I happen across an author who completely blows me away, and oh, the joy when I find out that the book I've read is by no means all - all those lovely things still to be read. Antonia Forest was one such, a few years ago, when I read her Autumn Term, and Helen Griffiths is now another.

One advantage of being unable to do much of any practical use over the past couple of weeks while my knee has been out of action is that I've been able to catch up on my to be read pile. To be accurate, the TBR pile is not a pile; it fills several boxes and is a fluid thing, often governed by whether or not I've sold a particular book.

But, prompted by the fact someone from whom I bought a large collection of books said this one always made her cry, I picked up The Wild Heart.

and was completely and utterly hooked. Helen Griffiths does not write conventional pony books: all her horse stories are set in the Spanish speaking world, and are very far from girl-gets-pony: they tend, in fact, to be boy-gets-horse, but to describe them as simply that is doing them a terrible dis-service. Her books are often about the casual cruelty with which man treats the horse; and if you read pony books as escapism, these are emphatically not the books for you.

They are starkly realistic: horses die, sometimes by the hundred when they are hunted down by the Gauchos for their skins, and people die too. The Last Summer is about Eduardo, a wealthy boy whose life is changed forever when the Spanish Civil War starts in 1936. His father is killed; he sees the family servants killed, and his only friend is an aged horse, whom he has to learn to love and care for, as he plods around Spain, trying to reach Galicia and his mother, whom he hopes has survived.

Sometimes Helen Griffith’s heroes share in the cruelty; though it is generally through ignorance rather than inclination, and they all learn there is a better way. The learning process is not necessarily straightforward, and often comes from an unexpected source.

The best of her novels, I think, is The Wild Heart. It is the story of La Bruja, a wild South American horse, who is blessed (or cursed) with great speed from her Thoroughbred grandsire. She becomes hunted; and in the end a seeming cruelty is her only hope of survival in freedom.

All the novels I have read are about loss: the loss of freedom; loved ones and innocence. Generally the loss is coped with, and a degree of understanding reached, but the process doesn’t always make comfortable reading. It does, however, make for stories which explore themes often missed by the average horse or pony story.

It is a very long time since I have added to my list of favourite pony books, but The Wild Heart is now there. Helen Griffith’s writing is a world away from the comfortable familiarity of Pony Clubs, but it is very well worth getting to know.

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