Equestrian Reads Review – Dream of Fair Horses, Patricia Leitch

When I was a child, most of my book-reading was done courtesy of our local library. Unfortunately, they never had a great selection of pony books in the junior section… they had all of the Swallows and Amazons books, Enid Blyton’s series etc, but apart from Black Beauty, very little for a horse mad girl.  As a result, I was limited in my access to pony books as a child.  Pocket money and birthday money was spent on pony books, of course, but somehow I never really got into Patricia Leitch, although I did have A Pony of Our Own and Jacky Jumps to the Top.  Patricia’s much-loved series about Jinny and her Arabian mare Shantih passed me by when I was the “right” age for them; perhaps I was already hooked on the Pullein-Thompson sisters and was saving my pennies for their works. I did read a couple of the Jinny books later on, when I was in Uni I think, and I enjoyed them but did not devour them as I would have ten years earlier. But when Samantha Hobden of Haynet put out a call for book review volunteers for a couple of Patricia Leitch books, her name rang a major bell in my head and I jumped at the chance.

I had a choice of Dream of Fair Horses or the Horse From Black Loch and I opted for Dream of Fair Horses. Being Irish, I thought it was to do with buying an amazing horse at a horse fair. How wrong was I? I soon found out when I read the blurb on Amazon!

‘In all my life, I had never seen anything as beautiful as this grey pony … ‘
Gill Caridia and her family are on the move. Gill’s father writes the sort of book that literary papers love, but which few people actually buy. And then he writes a detective story that sells so well he buys back the house in the countryside where he grew up. It means change for all the children, but for Gill it means the chance to find horses, and not just horses but to ride at Wembley. But Gill learns that no dream comes without cost. This passionate and vivid story, which takes Gill from the age of 11 to 13, looks at what it really means to own something.

I downloaded my copy and got stuck in.  Straight away, I noticed something that I’d also noticed on a recent re-read of My Friend Flicka.  There’s a whole lot of grown-up stuff going on behind the horse-mad kid story that I had missed as a youngster – Ken’s mother’s sadness in Flicka, for example.  In the case of Dream of Fair Horses, what struck me was how dysfunctional Gill’s family was.  Would I have spotted that as a teenager?  I’m not sure.  Maybe I would have just thought that they were cool and quirky.

There is the father, who lives in his own world of literary art and interfaces badly with the real world.  Doubtlessly he loves his children, but he is ill-equipped to raise a family.  This is more than hinted at in the first two paragraphs : “We were going to put down roots, we had tinkled on tin feet for too long” and “when Marc was one we moved to Hallows Noon and we lived there for nearly two years which is a record for our family.  Until Hallows Noon, we had never stayed anywhere for more than a year.”

The mother is the practical one, who tries to hold everything together, feeding and clothing her family from practically nothing.  The eldest brother, Ninian, “struggling to be himself” is actually trapped in the rôle of father figure. He reuibuilds and repairs their home, gives Gill sage and timely advice throughout the book, and supports his siblings in their dreams, all the while dreaming of University for himself.  The next brother, Torquil, escapes his family life by becoming “lost in a world of bugs” while the next in line, Francesca, dreams of being a singer but is “cursed with tone deafness” – yet she makes friends easily through her willingness to go on stage and perform. The two younger girls are extras to the story but they maintain the theme of children struggling to cope. One has learned to be self-sufficient and to integrate herself into each new  community she faces by joining Brownies or whatever club is available and the other is easily bullied by her peers and struggles in school. The last child, Marcus the baby, “merely existed” but is in fact the reason for the move which starts this story.

So on the surface, we have the classic tale, “pony-mad, pony-less girl meets pony, girl falls in love with pony, girl gets to ride pony and wins big competition” as the main story line and, behind it, we have the story of a family under pressure.

The horse and riding knowledge in the book is impeccable; the interpersonal relationships are well-crafted.

Gill’s slow-growing friendship with the disfigured old man who owns the beautiful grey pony is utterly believable yet, again, things are hinted at.  How did his son die?  What caused the scars on his face?  Leitch clearly had a back-story in her head for this character, and for his unpleasant daughter-in-law.

Although Gill’s father has occasional fatherly moments – when he catches Gill alone in the middle of a lake in a leaky old rowboat, for example! one wonders will he ever face his responsibilities as a parent, or will he remain lost in his world of words forever.

The eldest brother continues in his role as father-figure throughout the story in a way that left me pitying him for missing out on his childhood, but respecting him as a person.  His words to Gill after a very disappointing first visit to the local riding school really struck me.  It’s not up to you to judge. If you don’t like it, leave it. Get what you want. Don’t go around trying to change other people. They don’t want to be changed. They are really enjoying themselves and the sooner you learn this, the easier life’ll be for you. You’ve got to get what you want and let them get on with it.

Gill takes her brother’s advice and does indeed get what she wants through a process of luck (being in the right place at the right time), pluck and dedication. But, as the pony story unfolds in its predictable way, you are aware of her family disintegrating in the background, leaving Gill facing a difficult choice towards the end of the book.

I’m not going to give away any more.  Suffice to say, this is not a pink, fluffy, rainbows and butterflies ponies book; this is a very real tale of someone putting in all the hard graft and succeeding against the odds.  But winning isn’t everything – life goes on after the trophy has been proudly placed in the cabinet…

Would I recommend this book? 100%. No matter what age you are, if you’ve the slightest interest in horses, I think you’ll enjoy it.

I zipped back onto Amazon once I’d finished Dream of Fair Horses and bought The Horse from Black Loch, also by Patricia Leitch.  I haven’t managed to read it yet – I got side tracked by another series which Amazon offered me.  I think you can expect a few more Equestrian Reads Review soon.

PS For more horsey reads, check out Jane Badger’s website. She’s currently resuscitating many classic horse and pony favourites. Haynet Blog wrote a piece about her plans here

You’ll find Dream of Fair Horses and The Horse From Black Loch if you search on Amazon.com. Hopefully there will be more old favourites following soon.

 

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2 thoughts on “Equestrian Reads Review – Dream of Fair Horses, Patricia Leitch

  1. Hi Fiona, thanks for your comment. I’d never thought of pony books as ‘collectibles’ but I’m finding out now that they are objects of desire for many people my vintage. I regret (of course) leaving many of my old favourites behind when I left Ireland, but hey, you can’t take everything with you when you’re trying to fit all your important bits and pieces into a jeep and a horsebox!

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  2. I was never a huge fan of the Jinny books, although as a pony book collector I do own them. Dream of Fair Horses has always been a favourite, though. Black Loch has a touch of the supernatural in it, as do a couple of the Jinny books.

    With regards to the Flicka books, I agree with you fully. They are well worth reading as an adult, and, in fact, weren’t originally written solely as children’s books. The sequels in particular, Thunderhead and Green Grass of Wyoming, are just as much about the parents Rob and Nell, as they are about Ken. Maybe more. I own first editions of those two, and a slightly later but still early copy of My Friend Flicka.

    And yes, I’m familiar with Jane Badger’s site, and have been for many years. A few of the books shown on there are photographs from my own collection.

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