Jane Smiley: Nobody's Horse
Faber & Faber, 2010, £6.99
(First published in America as The Georges and the Jewels)
Reading age 12+
Thanks to Faber for sending me a copy to review.
I've only tried to read one Jane Smiley before: Horse Heaven and that was a bit of a disaster. I struggled on to the middle, but gave up. So, when I heard she'd written a YA novel, I was curious to see what I'd make of it.
Nobody's Horse is the story of Abby, and her parents. Abby's father deals in horses: he buys them cheap in Oklahoma, feeds them up, tidies them, and has Abby ride them until he can truthfully say "a little girl can ride them", and then the horses are sold. So that Abby does not become too attached to the horses, the geldings are all called George, and the mares Jewel. Abby is generally happy with her lot, but not with having to ride Grumpy George, who bucks like a demon, and scares her. Abby's Uncle Luke tries some horse-whisperer tactics (and if you were convinced by the scene in The Horse Whisperer where Tom Booker overcomes Pilgrim's problems by casting him and sitting on him, I don't think Jane Smiley was. When Uncle Luke tries it, Grumpy George is left infinitely worse.) What works with Grumpy George is Jem Jarrow's join-up approach. At least that's what I think it is. Whether it was or not, it makes for an absorbing part of the plot, and I can see today's generation of pony mad girls using this part of the book as a text book as much as their mothers did Josephine Pullein-Thompson's Six Ponies.
What this detached and unjudgemental child has to deal with is considerable: she is a seventh grader at school, and is the outsider, with just one friend, Gloria. The balance of the relationship between Abby and Gloria is upset when new girl Stella appears, and is threatened even more by Stella's pash for a boy in their class; a boy so dull he thinks a blow by blow description of his breakfast is worthy conversation. Abby's fundamentalist father has fallen out with her brother, Danny.
There is much quiet manoevering in this novel: Abby's mother quietly negotiates her way around her husband to see her son, and Abby is her mother's daughter. She accepts what happens to her, and calmly gets on with life. What she has to put up with at school is difficult, but it never seems to grab her soul, which is elsewhere; partly with her devout Christian family, and partly with the horses. Abby never moans about her fundamentalist parents: she simply doesn't tell them when a school project involves the class building Catholic missions, as it is much less fuss. I wondered what would make this detached child shout or scream, for she never does. When she is suspended from school, she doesn't rage at the desperate unfairness of it: she simply goes and works with the horses. That is not to say that Abby does not change: she makes small, quiet, definite and successful moves to assert herself.
All this happens through the horses, who are wonderfully done. Starting to give them names, as Abby does with the orphaned colt Jack, is the start of her separation of herself from her parents. All the changes Abby makes are made within the framework of her family and school: there are no wild bids for freedom; just small adjustments which destroy nothing.
I was very struck by the calm and unhurried pace of the writing. There is no rush through to get to the next incident, no skated over episode. It's a very calming book to read: you soon slip into its rhythm, and become part of the smooth pace of it. I wondered if it was to maintain this pace that the book was set in the 1960s: Is it because it would have been difficult to maintain the slow pace of the novel in the more frenetic, gadget-bound present?
This is an excellent book: my horse book of the year so far. It's absorbing, and believable, with more instructional horse content than anything I've read in a long while: but the book is in no sense a pill, not even a sugared one. The book is more than strong enough to carry the technical stuff. It's also an achievement to portray a fundamentalist family as human beings: like her heroine, Jane Smiley does not judge.
A note on differences between the American original and the UK printing: Grumpy George was Ornery George in the original. The book's first title was The Georges and the Jewels, and it had a different cover.