Has any animal more shaped American historical fiction than the horse? I even have one outside my office window, a sculpture named Youngsong, created by my late brother in law as a tribute to the joy of young life.
I had the honor of hosting the American Historical Novels discussion group on Goodreads and Facebook last week. The introductory interview posed the question, what was the first historical novel I read? Black Beauty leaped to mind instantly. Then my thoughts cantered through the years to where I realized that my love of that first historical horse may have influenced my characterization of Adam in The River by Starlight as a horse-whisperer and anti-abuse activist from his youngest years. I had riffed on a piece of research, the 1940 Canadian National Registration, a census the government conducted in order to identify skills its citizens had that might aid the war effort. Adam indicated experience with horses, even though it had been nearly 20 years since he’d worked with one.
Adam’s advocacy for horses began on an upended crate in a North Dakota dugout home, listening to an old timer’s memories of the extreme cruelty of the early 19th century wild horse roundups:
“The trapping of the horses sickened Old Timer, his telling of it sickened Adam . . . the huge corrals, mesquite poles bound with rawhide, mustangs driven through a chute built to face the wind, blinding them with dust clouds of their own making. Their shrieks of fury and terror.
“The ones whose panic cost them their footing perished first, trampled by their brethren’s wild search for escape, magnificent animals dying as though they were nothing more than mosquitoes. Others stamped and spun until exhaustion and apoplexy wrung the life from them. Old Timer could see it in their eyes: ‘Better dead than penned’ . . . Adam shuts his eyes, hearing the story and realizing that men were not superior to animals by virtue of their supposed morality.”
Barely into his teens, Adam learns to identify the scam tactics of “sharpers.” An excerpt:
“On the days the trains streamed in with their carloads of horses, everyone came to town. Adam stood against a fence, watching and listening as the buyers trotted the beasts up and down the street, examined teeth, palpated joints. Then buyer and seller set to haggling. Adam silently parsed the exchanges and followed the pantomime of the sale. In time he could single out any transaction and write the script.
“He was fifteen but could pass for twelve.
“A pounding rain had swamped the streets one afternoon when a discouraged buyer happened to glance Adam’s way and bark, ‘Whatta you lookin’ at, kid?’
“Adam told him the horse had a lemon up his nose. Knocking elbows with the trader as he passed, he spoke a few words of Michif into the horse’s ear, drawing a crow feather across the horse’s nostrils.
“The horse bobbed its head and sneezed. A shriveled lemon bathed in mucus dropped at its feet. . .
“It went this way for more than a year; he must have met thirty trainloads. He heard the mutterings of buyers and sellers as he passed: ‘There’s that preacher’s kid who sees through every trick in the book.’ It amazed him, how low some people would sink to make a sale, and how seemingly intelligent people would fall for it. . . It came to an end the day the church sexton overheard the growling of two sharpers after Adam averted a sale. Repeated the conversation to the Reverend and Mrs. Fielding in their parlor that night. ‘I’ve got a mind to kill that kid, preacher’s boy or no,’ the sexton quoted. ‘He says, ‘I seen plenty of accidents the good Lord been too busy to thwart.’”
The descriptions of horse scam tactics and Adam’s circumvention of horse abuse throughout The River by Starlight draw a lot of “How on earth did you come up with . . .?” questions. It all came from a slim little 1909 volume titled “Horse Secrets,” written by a veterinary professor named A. S. Alexander. Once I went down the path of the horse as a shaper of Adam’s destiny, it was hard to stop. Early in the story, before he and Annie know each other very well, or even like each other, she meets his horse, Tipsy, and he pushes a provocative question on her: “They say you see something of yourself when you look in a horse’s eyes. What do you see?” Her answer, “Something missing,” sets up a thread that carries to the end of the book. Later in the story, Annie gives Adam a chess set for Christmas, he relates how his grandfather warned him never to try to stare down the black horse/knight.
Dark horse, high horse, gift horse, horse of a different color. Horses pervade our language and culture. Have you loved a horse—real, literary, film? I adore Seabiscuit. You?
See you there!