Friday, July 21, 2017

Summer Series: The Black Stallion


The Black Stallion, by Walter Farley

Let's start with a summary, shall we? Everyone knows the plot of this one, but I suspect these will come more in handy as we get into the more obscure entries in the series.
So: teenager Alec Ramsay is returning from India via ship, along with a mysterious black stallion. When the ship sinks, he and the stallion swim to an abandoned island. There, they survive together and develop a bond. After they are rescued, they return to New York, where the Black catches the eye of retired jockey & racehorse trainer Henry Dailey. They begin to secretly train the Black to race, and with the help of a sports reporter, enter the Black into a match race against the two best horses in the country.
First things first: I realized halfway through this umpteenth re-read that the entire book makes perfect sense if you think of Alec as suffering from a raging and untreated case of PTSD. It doesn't help that all the adults in his life are absolutely shitty at...well, everything. How else to explain the weird mix of naivete, monomania, suicidal tendencies, and unpredictability that basically sums up Alec's entire character? Yet, everyone else in the book exists only to enable Alec's least whim. Literally everyone, from Tony the racist caricature right to the owners of Cyclone and Sun Raider to his MOTHER.

That being said, I still adore this book. I am full of contradictions, I know.

Let's start with the Black, shall we?
White lather ran from the horse's body; his mouth was open, his teeth bared. He was a giant of a horse, glistening black - too big to be pure Arabian. His mane was like a crest, mounting, then falling low. His neck was long and slender, and arched to a small, savagely beautiful head. The head was that of the wildest of all wild creatures - a stallion born wild - and it was beautiful, savage, splendid. A stallion with a wonderful physical perfection that matched his savage, ruthless spirit.
One of the nice things about reading this on the Kindle is that I can do things like search for how many times Walter Farley uses the word "savage" in this 275 page book. The answer is 17 times, or roughly every 16 pages. Three of those instances are in this paragraph. Most of the time it's a description of the Black's head. I fail entirely to understand how a horse's head can be "savagely beautiful."

(For fun, other statistics. "Wild" gets 47 instances, "Scream" gets 32, and "stallion" gets a whopping 370, or 1.3 times per page.)

On the one hand, this description of a horse makes no sense. On the other hand, it also neatly establishes the Black as the mythic creature he is. He is not so much a horse as he is a collection of inchoate adolescent yearnings given form. He is everything that teenaged Walter Farley would have dreamed up for himself, and be honest with me: probably a lot like your childhood imaginings of the perfect horse, too.
With the days that followed, Alec's mastery over the Black grew greater and greater. He could do almost anything with him. The savage fury of the unbroken stallion disappeared when he saw the boy. Alec rode him around the island and raced him down the beach, marveling at the giant strides and the terrific speed. Without realizing it, Alec was improving his horsemanship until he had reached the point where he was almost a part of the Black as they tore along.
In my re-read of this book, the island scenes made the least sense to me. Based on that paragraph, how long do you think Alec spent on the island? Would you be boggled if I told you nineteen days? Remember, he didn't start riding the Black until a couple of days in. So let's say two weeks. TWO WEEKS for Alec to tame this wild horse and become a bareback riding master.

Then they're rescued, and can we talk about this for a second? I had totally forgotten that the ship that rescues them takes them to Rio de Janeiro first. An entirely different CONTINENT, you guys! And they send Alec's parents a message via radio and they get a telegram back: "Thank God you're safe. Cabling money to Rio de Janeiro. Hurry home. Love, Mother and Dad."

Alec's parents thought he died in a shipwreck and that is their response? Honestly, of everyone in this book, they are the most baffling. I realize that this is a YA book, of an era that had to write parents out in order for the kids to have adventures but WHAT? In fact, Alec's poor mother is basically full-on Stepford throughout this book. Despite being their only child, they're mildly puzzled that he returns and sort of quietly content, instead of ecstatic that he miraculously survived.

They're also totally chill with him bringing home this totally insane horse, but it's fine, he knocks on his neighbor's door and they have a stall and he'll just hang out there.
"What are you going to feed him tonight, Alec? Did you think of that?" his father asked.
"Gee, that's right!" said Alec. "I had forgotten!"
And then they just feed him...whatever grain old Napoleon gets. Oats, or something. Which settles it: the fact that the Black did not die of colic 5 pages into this book is the real supernatural storyline.

Then Alec wakes up the next day:
He was glad his father had told him he wouldn't have to go to school today. "One more day won't hurt," he had said, "and it'll give you a chance to accustom yourself again."
HE SPENT NINETEEN DAYS ON A DESERT ISLAND BUT AT LEAST HE GETS ONE DAY AT HOME BEFORE GOING BACK TO SCHOOL WHAT THE FUCK.

It's a good thing Alec doesn't go to school, though, because the Black jumps out of his pasture and lives all of our dreams, galloping loose on a golf course. This to me feels like one of the most realistic moments in the entire book. Of course he ditches his pasture. He's a wild horse. You tear up that stupid golf turf, Black!

Thankfully, Alec gets back in time to eat the breakfast his mother has set out for him like it's any other day and she apparently didn't notice that he was gone? Also, his father left for work without saying goodbye? LOLLLLL. I'm telling you: all of Alec's adults are the WORST.

Henry Dailey appeared the first night they brought the Black home, and he is of course the second most important human character in this entire series after Alec, so here's our description of him.
Finally he showed up - a short, chunky man with large shoulders. He came toward them walking in jerky, bowlegged strides. His white shirt tails flapped in the night wind. He wiped a large hand across his mouth.
I don't blame Henry for anything that happens in this book. He is carrying around his own baggage. He wants to get back into racing, which his wife forced him to give up, and he is arguably still traumatized from losing Chang, his horse of a lifetime. He also gives us some of the nicest moments in this book and later, in the whole series.
Henry paused as he carefully turned a corner. Then he continued, "Y'know, Alec, horses are kind of like the sea, you'll find out - once you get used to 'em and learn to love 'em, you can't ever give them up."
<3, Henry. I totally buy him as the guy who sees a chance to relive his best days and highest dreams, who arguably manipulates the shit out of this teenager because he sees a path back to the thing he loves the most. His motivations are the clearest and easiest to understand in the whole book, after maybe Alec's, but then Alec's motivations are basically "be the very most special!"

(No but seriously does Alec actually have a personality? Not in this book, for sure. He's...resourceful, I guess? And tough? Because of the island and also he survives like eight million concussions and learns to ride the Black properly?)

After schooling the Black at what I think is meant to be the Aqueduct (I don't think it's Belmont? Someone correct me if I'm wrong, but they don't ever mention the name) things start to move more slowly: thankfully, we get the literary equivalent of a training montage, as Alec spends all winter getting the shit kicked out of him while they introduce the Black to saddle and bridle, and then start properly training him on the track.

They want to race him, but, well...
"You see," Alec said, "we had planned to run him in some big races. I was going to ride - but we weren't able to get his pedigree. We wrote to Arabia trying to get it, but it was impossible. We didn't know much about him, only the port where he got on the boat. And you can't run a horse in a race without his being registered."
THAT IS NOT HOW ANY OF THIS WORKS, ALEC.
"Yeah, that's right," muttered Joe, "and while the Black looks like a thoroughbred, he is certainly too wild to have ever been brought up like one."
This may be the most head-scratching sentence in the entire book, and that's saying a lot. Let's parse it out, shall we? First of all, Joe, who is a bigshot racing columnist, agrees with Alec that a horse only needs to be "registered" (with whom? as what? it's a mystery.) in order to race. Second, in what universe does the Black look like a Thoroughbred? He's from "Arabia" (not a thing, even in 1941), and he's pretty explicitly described and recognized by multiple characters as looking like an Arabian. Third, "too wild to have ever been brought up like one," what the actual fuck does that mean? All Thoroughbreds are magically well-behaved on account of...I don't even know. Joe is the worst.

Not that racing is a great idea, because, well.
Alec grasped the reins still tighter and leaned over until his head touched the stallion's. He knew full well the danger that was his every time he rode the Black, especially when he let him loose on the track. The stallion would never hurt him knowingly, but once he got his head he was no longer the Black that Alec knew - but once again a wild stallion that had never been clearly broken, and never would be!
sigh.

Tell you what, let's all of us try galloping our horses with our heads touching their heads. Report back on how that goes!

Joe manipulates public sentiment into a) demanding a match race between Cyclone and Sun Raider, the East & West Coast champions and then b) introducing a mystery horse into the mix as a ploy to get the Black invited to race. Why does anyone go along with this? The other owners, the racetrack owners, the betting public, and oh yeah, the adults in Alec's life:
"But, Henry, it's such a dangerous race for him to go into - and on that wild horse!" [said Alec's father]
"Not any more dangerous than what he's faced many times since that boat went down in the ocean. I've grown to know your boy pretty well within the last few months, and I can honestly say that he's different from any of us. He's found something we never will, because we'll never go through the experiences that he's had to."
Like mental illness, Henry? God damn it.

There was never any plausible ending for this book but that the Black enters the match race and wins, coming from behind in a spectacular fashion, after getting into a fight with Sun Raider at the starting line. In a kind of neat touch, the story of the race is told entirely in the announcer's call. You just have to imagine what's going through Alec's head during all of it, which really boxes him in neatly and sustains that myth of the boy and his horse conquering all. It's like after a whole book of being on the inside now we're on the outside, and we'll never know what it's really like. I can't decide whether it's intentionally clever or I'm reading too much into it.

The movie version gets this perfectly, interspersing scenes of the race with flashbacks to Alec and the Black alone on the island.

The book finishes triumphantly, with Alec insisting that everyone is going to be seeing a lot more of the Black, everyone who ever doubted him proved wrong, and a bright glowing future ahead of them, somehow.

So, with all that snark? I still love this book. Maybe it's because I've read it so many times I have practically memorized whole chunks of the text. Maybe because there is something enduring behind all the absurdity - the ultimate horse crazy kid's dream. Some of the most emotional bits hold up, even as they are ridiculous on the surface - like Alec refusing to leave the Black behind on the deserted island. I still got a pang when I read it. They fight for each other, in a way. They epitomize that bond that we all wish we had with our horses - an unspoken, unbreakable partnership.

Did you re-read it along with me? When's the last time you read it? What are your thoughts?

6 comments:

  1. Your review had me crying 😂 Even as a young adult reading this book, I remember thinking "WTF?" quite a bit. But I still loved it!

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is my favorite book review of all time. OF. ALL. TIME.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I haven't read any of the Black Stallion books in YEARS, but I remember the movie pretty clearly. I was under the impression the Black and Alec were on that island for MONTHS! I also remember being extremely annoyed by The Black getting to enter a race; I'm pretty sure I ranted to my parents about how that could never happen because The Black wasn't a Thoroughbred or registered with the Jockey Club lolz

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Also, while I know you're reviewing the book, can we just talk about the movie for another hot second? What the FUCK was that helmet Alec wore in the race?! Like, it had a ponytail on it WTF

      Delete
  4. This is the greatest book review EVER. You could totally have a blog that consisted solely of snarky book reviews and I would love it.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Great review. I haven't read the books in years.

    ReplyDelete

Thanks for commenting! It's great to hear from you.