Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Winter Pony

What a beautiful cover. What a sad, sad story.  Now, knowing the little I know about Captain Scott's final voyage to the South Pole, I knew that the end was not going to be pretty. I was not prepared for the OH MY GOODNESS sad sad sad poor little pony WAAAH tale. I'm still trying to recover. Honestly, folks. It's a well-written story. Beautiful, vivid writing (rather vivid!). But for heaven's sake, if you have a sensitive little horse-obsessed reader, please be aware that sad, bad things happen to the horses in this (true) story (The people too. It's just a bad situation all around.)  I'm not horse-obsessed (I love all animals, though), and young James Pigg broke my heart.

Let me tell you about James Pigg, the beautiful little horse depicted on this cover.  James Pigg was the actual name of a horse on Scott's expedition.  Thanks to Scott's meticulous journals and his affection for the horses (which was probably one of the things that doomed him), we have quite a bit of information on the horses.  Iain Lawrence tells the tale of the fatal expedition through the eyes of James Pigg, captured from Siberia and forced to endure years of heavy work.  He is chosen to be one of twenty ponies on Robert Falcon Scott's South Pole expedition.

Scott is confident that he will be successful in his journey, until the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen announces that he, too, is on a mission to reach the South Pole.  Unfortunately, Scott's crew of men, horses, and dogs run into one bad situation after another--and the cruel, unforgiving winter season is approaching.  The equipment is getting heavier and heavier, so they leave behind some of the horses' feed....and then have to make hard decisions about the fate of the horses.

Horse stories for children often--but not always--follow a familiar pattern.  After the horse endures harsh living conditions and/or unkindness at the hand of an owner, he/she is often rescued and connected to a young person, who needs the horse just as much as the horse needs him/her. Dog stories are a little similar--many dog stories involve a stray on a journey or going through the school of hard knocks before being adopted, or a lost dog going through many adventures before being reunited with its owner. Although conditions may be bleak, and many times animal and young person are separated at one time in the story (Because of Winn Dixie, War Horse), there is often the element of hope in the story.  Unfortunately, there's slim to eventually no hope in this story. This is not a criticism, but it's something to be aware of. The last 50 pages are rather emotionally difficult to read. Scott's expedition is an amazing tale. But it's a tragic tale. In his excellent afterword, Iain Lawrence writes that the death of James Pigg was an emotionally difficult thing to write.  It's a difficult thing to read.


(James Pigg's death scene, oddly enough, brought to mind elderly Rose's death scene in Titanic. Remember that movie? It's being rereleased in 3-D, of all things, to mark the 100th anniversary of the shipwreck. Because if there's anything that should be in 3-D, it should be a movie about an epic disaster.   Anyway--remember when elderly Rose dies in her bed? And in the next scene, we see young Rose descending the staircase of the Titanic, and she sees all the people who died on the ship? And they're all applauding her?  It's a little bit like that. Read it and see if you don't agree.)


Readers should definitely not skip Lawrence's afterword, in which he describes the discovery of Scott's team the following winter and Scott's falling out of favor (and Amundsen's rising in favor) in recent times. I think I need to read The Coldest March, an adult nonfiction treatment of Scott's expedition. If anyone can recommend anything else about Robert Fulton Scott (or Arctic exploration in general-I've read nothing on it, and I'd like to start), I'd love to hear it. Unfortunately, since Scott fell out of favor in the 1970s, it looks like there's only been a handful of books written about him.

 Scott's expedition is an extraordinary tale of determination, celebrity, and fatal mistakes--there is an excellent historical fiction story to be told, from the humans' perspective.   Until then, The Winter Pony is a well-written yet emotionally devastating account through the eyes of one of Scott's actual ponies.  Recommended, but know what you're (or your child is) getting into.


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