Sunday, 3 March 2013
The One Dollar Horse, by Lauren St John
The One Dollar Horse is like a classic and a modern fairytale all wrapped up in one. It has that feel-good essence you get from really good chick-lit or from a younger children’s book like The Secret Garden or Ballet Shoes, but without the overly smoochy tendencies of the first or the old fashioned societal set-up of the second. I’m a girly girl in that I like stories with horses or ballet or happy-ever-after endings, so this was bound to be a win-win book for me, and with it’s hot-pink pages it’s definitely being aimed at the girly market. But, that said, I truly believe this is a book to be enjoyed by even those who wouldn’t normally pick up a horse book, and that is because, really, the horse story is just a side-line to the classic character arc, the ups and downs of pursuing your dreams, no matter what those dreams happen to be.
Casey Blue does not have the most auspicious of backgrounds, but living in a tower block in East London with her just-out-of-jail father doesn’t mean she can’t dream any bigger than the rest of us. Horse mad, she volunteers at the local riding centre and figures if she’s lucky she’ll train to be a riding instructor there one day. But then everything changes when she and her father save a horse from certain destruction. Downbeaten and starving, will the horse even survive his first night in the stable? I don’t think I’d be giving too much away by saying yes, and that he turns out to be rather a gem. Casey has always dreamed of competing at the Badminton Horse Trials: will the One Dollar Horse be able to take her there?
Lauren St John’s story covers an unusually long time period for an older children/teen novel as Casey slowly trains herself and her horse, begins competing, struggles, pauses, picks herself up and starts again. At least two years have passed by the time we reach the conclusion, a time period that other reviewers have argued is unrealistic in terms of horse training. But, really, that doesn’t matter. This is not a book you start reading in the knowledge that its story-arc is going to be entirely reflective of real life, and this fairytale aspect is what lends itself to the feel of modern classics like Ballet Shoes, and that One Dollar Horse emulates perfectly. It’s a story not about what it takes to train a horse for Badminton, but about following your dreams, believing in yourself, overcoming struggles, and seeing things through to their conclusion. It is, in short, a dream come true. The adults among us know full well that this is not the sort of thing that happens every day - and the people around Casey are apt to remind her of this fact too - but sometimes it does, and we all secretly hope that we’ll be the ones who get to experience it.
Casey’s struggles are topical and, mostly, realistic - money, social typecasting - and the fairytale storytelling is further affirmed by the presence of a fairy godmother-type character who comes to the rescue in moments of direst need. Although officially classed as a teenage title by Waterstones, the content is such that it is perfectly suited for younger children as well, perhaps from the age of nine or ten if they are strong readers - comments from a mum in my shop suggest that some of the themes (eg. Casey’s father’s criminal activities and their implications) may need explaining to younger readers, but that otherwise her eight-year-old enjoyed it and is looking forward to the next installment, Race the Wind, out in April. To this end, there was a particular storyline that wasn’t tied up at the end of One Dollar Horse, which I hope will be picked up again in the sequel. Something tells me that Badminton is not the end of the road for Casey, and I’m looking forward to finding out what happens next.
I must say how nice it is that there are still new stories like this one being written, that the traditions of authors like Noel Streatfeild and Eva Ibbotson are still alive and kicking. And also how nice it is that a book of this ilk is being aimed at teenagers, a genre so often swamped with dark romance and the assumption that the only thing teenage girls want to read are soppy love stories. Don’t get me wrong, soppy love stories definitely have their place, but there is so much more to life. In many aspects this book is a love story, but it’s not all about the boy and who’s kissing who; rather, its focus is on finding the positives in life and fighting for your place on the ladder instead of letting others decide it for you. If you enjoy it, try some of Lauren St John's other books, or Maggie Stiefvater's excellent The Scorpio Races.