“It took stiff-necked courage and grit to ranch in Oregon country in the early 1900’s.”
The Year of the Black Pony is a story about family and fortitude more than it is a story about a horse. The horse, however, is a character worthy of being in the title. This hard but beautiful story is set in the challenging West at the turn of the century. It captures a vignette of the life-and-death struggles of ranching and Western settlement. It is a living history book that delights and entertains while also teaching.
The writing of this beautiful book is accessible and engaging, but the storyline is hard. In the first chapter, the father dies as a consequence of his drunken foolishness and leaves his family with the harsh reality of having no income and little chance of survival. We are not sorry to see him exit the story, as we know from Christopher that his father was a depressed and fierce-tempered man. The second chapter is a bit shocking. The absolutely necessary remarriage of Mrs. Fellows is unconventional but courageous. After that, things get a whole lot more wholesome, while also remaining quite hard.
“Neither of you has said one word about love and affection.”
“Reverend… I’ve read the Bible from cover to cover many times. And it is full of things about widows remarrying… I have found little about love and affection between husband and wife. It often refers to respect and goodness and it does state that the price of a good wife is far above rubies. And I intend to be a good wife.”
In this boyish story, we follow 12-year-old Christopher and his little sister Ellie through the remarriage of their mother and the blending of two ranches into one. This story line is tough but it is also packed with many mercies. We learn early, and are reminded periodically throughout, that Mr. Fellows had been a hard man and an even harder father. Mr. Chase, on the other hand, is a smart, capable, and ultimately tender stepfather. In fact, Chris and Ellie privately wonder if it is a betrayal of their mother to love their stepfather more than they loved their father. Mrs. Fellows/Chase, however, never does concede to loving her second husband. And that makes the story even harder. We have a sense, by the end of it, that she does respect and ultimately love Mr. Chase, but it is not a neat and tidy romance.
The story opens with Chris sitting on a ridge looking down at the black pony running wild and free in the pastureland. This pony, named Lucifer by Chris’s mother, brings the family much trouble and some real blessing by the time the story is through. The black pony is a fallen angel – he was made mean and broken by men despite his exquisite form and keen mind. Through their efforts to rehabilitate this pony and make him what he could be, we see a family come together and fight through their own grief, brokenness, and hurt. Because of what this pony represents, they allow themselves to dream of a better kind of life and better kind of family.
Typical of Bethlehem Books, the hardness is real but it is not too heavy. Independent readers can read this and be inspired to do the work of cultivating fortitude in their own lives. Our family listened to the audio from Audible while we sat at the kitchen table and colored together. We laughed, we cried, and we hung on every chapter closing. So poignant were some scenes that my five-year-old will come to me, now several weeks later, and narrate them again and again.
Fighting and lawlessness are a part of the Western story. The main characters in this drama, however, are deeply moral and fight only when it is absolutely necessary. This theme is teased out and there are a few brawls. That said, the story is pretty principled. If you have ever seen “The Quiet Man” with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, this bears some striking resemblance. From the first descriptions of Frank Chase, I could picture only John Wayne. That calm, kind, strong, principled, and determined cowboy. Mable Fellows/Chase reminds me of a very subdued Maureen O’Hara. She is rigid, strong in her convictions, and ultimately irresistibly attractive because of the fierce determinedness buried inside.
I am a genuine fan of Ralph Moody and his writing. This story reminds me of Moody through and through. This could easily have been a spin on Little Britches. I may even prefer it to Little Britches….