Ellie Carrington, the 14 year old heroine, is from New Zealand. Her parents have been killed in an accident, and her grandmother can no longer care for her, so she's come to England to live with her uncle Len and her cousin Joe. She's had to leave her pony, and the one small flicker of light on the horizon is that Uncle Len runs a showing stable. However, Uncle Len is worlds away from the sympathetic father figure Ellie needs. He is wedded to his work: all that matters is that the stables succeed. Len is impatient, dictatorial: a bully. Cousin Joe, 16, is cowed by his father and shows not a flicker of spirit; his father thinks he's useless, and tells him so.
Ellie clashes badly with her uncle. When she defies him, and rescues some kittens he wanted drowned, he tells her "This is my yard and my house, and I make the decisions. While you're under my roof, you'll do as I say. Tomorrow you'll start riding the ponies." Ellie flatly refuses. It does not go down well.
|Puffin Books, 2010|
After Ellie starts riding, she finds of course that she enjoys working with her uncle's ponies, and she starts to appreciate that her uncle is extremely good at what he does. This is not just a straightforward showing story though: Ellie's horse, Spirit, talks to her. It's a moot point as to whether this means the book is fantasy or in the horse-whispering camp: there are people out there who say horses talk to them. They may very well do. Ellie is fully aware that people might well think she's mad if she tells them Spirit talks to her. The horse talking sections of the story are believable: after Ellie tells Joe she can communicate with Spirit (which Joe doesn't believe) they move smartly on to tidying the muck heap. There's not an over-concentration on the mystical at the expense of the practical stuff that has to go on around horses. There's a slightly different dynamic in this series than in Heartland, in which healing was the be all and end all: here the stable has to succeed to survive, and that's what the communication with horses helps. I think the book is the stronger for it: it's more rooted in reality than Heartland, though I shall be interested to see if school becomes more than a passing mention. There is a tension, particularly if Ellie's about to start her GCSE courses, between the amount of school work that needs to be done and the need to take days off for shows.
Ellie herself is an attractive character: I like feisty heroines, and I like her stubborn determination. She doesn't, unlike the heroine of Heartland, Amy, give way to storms of emotion. This is not a girl who feels sorry for herself, even though life has dealt her a rough hand. She gets up and gets on with things. There's an interesting range of characters: the book is, unusually for a pony book, quite male-dominated. Apart from Uncle Len, there's Luke, who helps run the stables, and Joe of course. Ellie's grandmother is a very distant figure, in New Zealand. Sasha, a groom, is a very intermittent romantic interest for Luke. Spirit, the major equine character, is male as well. So far, Ellie survives in this male world.
I liked the setting of the book in a showing yard. It's been a very long while since Caroline Akrill's showing series, and it's good to have something different. I find myself increasingly fascinating by showing as I get older - the showing pages are the one bit of Horse and Hound I always read - maybe my inner Becky is coming to the fore as I get older, and I will end up touting a hack of bewitching beauty but appalling character around shows, as she does Benjamin in Caroline Canters Home. Yes, I know Benjamin's a pony, but you know what I mean.
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