A series of (so far) 8 books
Scholastic's Chestnut Hill website
Having tackled the emotional swirl that is Heartland, I thought I might as well do Chestnut Hill next. Chestnut Hill is a different series by "Lauren Brooke" based at a girls' boarding school in America. Its heroines are a quartet of girls: Lani, Malory, Dylan and Honey, and the series follows them through the school. In this story, Lani is under threat of having to leave the school as her poor report has made her parents think she's riding at the expense of her school work.
This new(ish) series is aimed at a younger readership than Heartland. The protagonists are in Year 8, which I imagine is the same as the English one, so are aged 12-13. Those few years make a huge difference, as the emotional tempests we get in Heartland seem pretty much absent.
Heartland meets teenage fantasies of struggling against the world; Chestnut Hill addresses fantasies of a different sort. This series is really Sex and the City for young girls and horses: friends, shopping, relationships and ponies. (Ponies are not much of a feature, of course, in Sex and the City. I would rather like to know, though, what Carrie et al would make of horses - my money's on Charlotte for having a latent horsey gene.)
What matters in this book is the girl's relationships with each other; their riding, oh, and labels. I am not exactly au fait with every hip label so it took a while before it dawned on me that Heatherette was a brand and not a colour. Some of the labelling serves to reinforce the character stereotypes: the snobby (there had to be one, didn't there) villain has, of course, all the right labels, but the other characters do their bit to uphold American commerce too. There is so much mention of labels that I did begin to wonder if there was a bit of product placement going on. Here's a particularly blatant example:
"Who has a phone?" Lani demanded. Several options were immediately pulled out of pockets and offered. She picked Tanisha's brand-new Palm Treo....."
I think anyone who's read this blog will be able to predict that I am now going to weigh in with my responsible adult bit: I don't like this label stuff. It shouldn't matter if someone's favourite sweater is Abercrombie, or that they wear 501s. Yes, these girls are almost all wealthy and so that's the sort of stuff they're going to have. Maybe it's there to reinforce the fantasy: these girls are of course wish fulfilment of the highest order. They go to an incredibly cool school where you ride, get to meet cool boys (not ones that live in the town, of course - these ones go to the male Chestnut Hill equivalent) and money isn't a problem. However, there's not a lot of point making the obligatory nod to school story conventions by having a scholarship girl (Malory), if on every other page you're reinforcing the importance of having the right label.
It's also interesting to see how conventions are changing in school stories. In Enid Blyton et al, the girl turning up in the tussore silk shirt with specially tailored uniform is A Bad Thing, whose heart is not in the right place, and who needs the tempering influence of The School. In Chestnut Hill they'd ask her who her tailor was and plan a shopping expedition.
This boarding school is quite something: I imagine, in my cynical way, that it came about because of the popularity of Harry Potter, set of course, in a boarding school (though Chestnut Hill is blessedly short of fantasy). There have been a few attempts at combining school and ponies, of which the best known is probably Mary Gervaise's G for Georgia series, to which girls can take their own ponies.
The big difference between Mary Gervaise and the Lauren Brooke series is the amount of pony content. Mary Gervaise, as Sue Sims says in The Encyclopaedia of Girls' School Stories, was much happier writing school stories, and so the pony content of her books, though there, lacks the fine detail and the emphasis that the fan of the pony story would expect. No such problem with Chestnut Hill. Although it is stressed throughout the story that Lani must concentrate on her work, the actual time described in the classroom is absolutely minimal. The only teacher who says anything meaningful is the riding instructor. Even the Head, with whom Lani's parents hold a pivotal meeting to decide her future at the school, doesn't appear. Her comments are reported by Lani's father. Not quite Miss Annersley of the Chalet School, ever-present.
The other thing that puzzled me is that lack of intelligent writing about the ponies: I don't mean that what's said is wrong; but that the ponies do not emerge as characters. The stated aim of the series is:
"... this time we'll get to know the same ponies over the entire series. Although there were regular equine characters at Heartland, like Sundance and later Spindleberry, most of Amy's time was spent meeting new ponies, dealing with their issues, and returning them happily to their owners. In Chestnut Hill, we'll be able to watch the central characters forge relationships with ponies that become very special to them, even if they don't own them. If you ride at a riding stables, you'll know it's hard not to have a favorite pony. It will be great to see the main characters getting to know which ponies are their favorites, and developing their riding skills through the semesters."
It is very easy in pony stories to make the ponies vehicles, and for them not to emerge successfully as real, live ponies. Even after reading about Colorado, the pony Lani rides, I don't know much about him. I know he's a buckskin; good at Western disciplines and can be difficult, but I don't have any sense of him emerging as a real live pony. There's none of the little bits of detail that make say Don Stanford's horses in The Horsemasters emerge as characters, and that's a shame.
Chestnut Hill doesn't push the boundaries of either the school story or the pony story: it is probably the most horsey school yet created, but challenging boundaries is not what this series is about. It's about selling books by ticking yet more boxes. The books are reasonable reads; the plots are adequate and the characters not completely cardboard. I never thought I'd say this, but I prefer Heartland. At least with that series there was something to raise a bit of passion, even if what I felt wasn't quite what the authors intended. Chestnut Hill, though, left me rather bored. It's a comfortable and conventional gallop through the juvenile reaches of American commerce.