Retro Recs – THUNDERHEAD
HERE’S THE PLAN: to pull out a book from my tight-packed bookshelves and share it. Qualifications? It has to be one I’ve read over and over again, one that has inspired my own writing, and one that gave me a lasting experience of some sort. There are so many older books that are just too damned good to be buried in the mosh pit of publishing fashions and frenzies. So I’m going to pull them out and have another dance with them. And hopefully encourage others to do the same.
Since it’s only seems right to have these first Retro Recs posts feature authors who have one way or another deeply influenced both my reading and writing, then Mary O’Hara makes up the third, but certainly not the least, of my Three Hail Marys. O’Hara is perhaps best known for the novel My Friend Flicka–which has spawned several movies, few of which do justice to the rich and powerful layer cake of characterisation that is O’Hara’s work. My Friend Flicka is perhaps the first of her books I read as a youth, and another absolute favourite of mine. But not as many people seem to know that Flicka was the first of a trilogy; a coming of age tale concerning a boy named Ken McLaughlin, his family, their ranch in Wyoming and the horses that taught him the many truths of living. The titles are, in order:
My Friend Flicka
Green Grass of Wyoming
These books are marketed as ‘children’s books’, true; but when they were published, there wasn’t the same nigh-rabid need to classify everything into a plethora of overly simplistic categories. Whether we as readers (I refuse to use the word consumers–like books are cereal! Hardly!) have learned over-entitlement through such rabid labelling is a topic for another time. Suffice it to say, when growing up I thankfully didn’t have those stifling categories trying to indoctrinate what was ‘proper’ to read; books were separated by reading levels and topics and really, that was about it. A prodigious reader from the age of four (that’s what my parents told me, anyway), I read books. From every shelf in the library.
And these three books, like almost every ‘children’s book’ of that era–contained something for every age of reader. Naturally there were things in the text that as a child I didn’t comprehend and glossed over… but that was–and is–the delight. So many little gems are in these paragraphs and this story; layers upon layers of sheer characterisation and storytelling brilliance. The whole trilogy is the kind of book that you want to keep on your shelves, and reread–for each time you do, you glean something more.
Yes, I love these books. I have the first set in early edition hardcovers (c) 1941, given to me by a dear family friend when I was perhaps eleven.
So, after a hard choice from three examples of mind-blowing and amazing craft, it was Thunderhead that came to the fore. Granted, I do tend toward the middle of many trilogies; perhaps because that’s where the emotional stakes ramp up the most, and things spin out of control. In Thunderhead were all the pivotal points of any good bildungsroman: insubordination, a family crisis amidst the hardships of ranch life, thwarted hopes and a focus upon which to fasten one’s love and pain and hopes.
The latter in particular is an ugly white colt named Thunderhead, called the Goblin and as much an outsider as his abstracted young master, Ken. Ken has, in the colt’s birth, set his heart upon raising a race horse that will bring his parent’s ranch out of overweening debt. Both colt and boy come into their proper destiny in ways neither can foretell. But the story isn’t just about Ken. His mother and father, his elder brother, the ranch hands, even the brilliantly-described countryside itself… all are living, breathing individuals. None are perfect–and you care about every single one of them.
And the horses. Oh, the horses!
O’Hara had a way with them that was sublime. They weren’t cutesy, overly anthropomorphic cartoons, their thought processes were just understandable enough, yet alien, too. Horses are not humans–no animal is human–and that very difference should be given honour. O’Hara does this as can only someone who has spent their life around horses and beneath the wild skies of a barely-tamed land:
When Goblin caught the unmistakable strong scent of the stallion he trotted out from the herd to find him. He saw him up there on a hill–just where Banner would have been–and with a joyful nicker, started toward him.
The Albino came down to meet him.
Goblin, a creature of fire and magnetism himself, felt the oncoming stallion in terms of voltage, and it was almost too much to be borne. Goblin came to a stop. It occurred to him that he was going in the wrong direction. But he held his ground.
He watched. He had never seen or felt anything like that before. The stallion was so contained, his power was so gathered and held within him that he was all curves. His great neck was arched, his chin drawn in and under, the crest of his head was high and rounded with long ears cocked like spear-points. His face was terrifying–that ferocious expression! Those fiery eyes! And his huge, heavily-muscled legs curving high, flung forward so that the great body floated through the air–then the massive hoofs striking and bounding up from the earth with sledge-hammer blows that made the hills tremble and echoed like thunder in the valley!
The Goblin held his ground. The Albino slowed his pace, came closer–stopped. Their noses were about two feet apart.
For as long as a minute they faced and eyed each other.
They were the same. Trunk and branch of the same tree. And from that confusing identity–each seeing himself as in a distorted mirror–there flamed terror and fury.
No self-respecting stallion would deign to attack a mere yearling, or even to take him seriously enough to administer heavy punishment. But suddenly the Albino raised his right hoof and gave one terrible pawing stroke accompanied by a short grunting screech of unearthly fury. And in doing so, he both acknowledged and attempted to destroy his heir.
From these books and this author I learned that words could give animal the souls I knew they possessed. From animals–and lifetime of being around them–I embarked upon the never-ending process of acquiring that all-important skill set of speculative and historical fiction: writing Other. More importantly, I gained empathy and the stark, important realisation: that Other isn’t separate from an undeniable semblance of Self, yet it still possesses–and must maintain–its own rights and presence.
Not so bad a legacy from a ‘children’s book’, methinks.
A mere thank you is not near enough, Mary O’Hara.