Thunderhead is Mary O’Hara’s sequel to My Friend Flicka. I’m not a big sequel fan. When I read both books many years ago, I remember being surprised that I liked Thunderhead more than Flicka. It’s obvious to me now that I wasn’t thinking about children when I read these. Thunderhead is not a story for young children.

In My Friend Flicka, the protagonist, Ken, is a ten-year-old boy. By the beginning of Thunderhead, Ken is twelve. He is fifteen by the end. Since Flicka was a yearling in the first book, and Thunderhead is her colt, it makes sense that a couple of years have passed. But most of this story doesn’t involve Ken as much as it does his parents, Rob and Nell, and their relationship.

Thunderhead should have been born in the spring with all the other foals of that year. But he hangs on until September, and he is born in the middle of a severe thunderstorm. Thunderhead is all white, and so oddly shaped for a colt that he is immediately nicknamed Goblin. The name fits him so well that even Ken, who had such high hopes for this foal, starts to use it. Thunderhead is nothing like what anyone would have expected to come from Flicka and the ranch’s stallion. Rob suspects that all is not as it should be. He confronts Ken, who confesses that when Flicka was in heat, he had sneaked over to the neighbor’s ranch and allowed her to be bred to the stallion there; a stallion that had been a racehorse.

Because of Flicka’s speed, Ken hoped that this tactic would produce a winning racehorse that would earn enough money to save the ranch. He was so intent on his dream that it didn’t cross his mind that he had stolen the stud fee from their neighbor. Thunderhead’s color tells Rob that the colt is a throwback to the Albino, a wild stallion, Flicka’s grandsire. His lineage makes him a particularly troublesome horse, which is a thread that runs through the story, as Ken fights to train an incorrigible young stallion into a racer.

“They talked and mused about the poetry which is the pulse-beat of the living earth. Here, on the ranch, one lived right on the naked body of nature.”

Because the ranch is so far from town, Ken and his older brother board in Laramie for the school year, and are only home on weekends and for holidays. Much of the story takes place during the school year when the boys are away, and we see winter through Nell’s eyes. We also follow her through the crumbling of her relationship with Rob. Rob and Nell have been ranching for nearly twenty years, and horses simply don’t pay. Nell is worried about the future, and Rob is offended by her lack of faith in him. In his anger and frustration, he pushes her away, and it is painful to go through her suffering with her. 

This book was published three years before O’Hara divorced her second husband. In the little bit of reading I’ve done about her life, it seems that both her husbands were what is so delicately called “philanderers.” The book was written during a time when the ranch was failing, and maybe her relationship with her husband was failing as well. In this book, perhaps Nell’s character is O’Hara’s soul cry. Her description of Nell’s pain, confusion, and desperation is so potent that I had to look ahead to see how long she and I would have to endure Rob’s harsh looks and sarcasm.  

The conflict lasts through two thirds of the book. Thunderhead’s foray into racing takes up only the last sixty or so pages of the story.

Though not a book for children, the writing is stunningly beautiful. O’Hara takes us into Thunderhead’s secret life. We know where he goes when he disappears from the ranch, and what he has found. We follow his thinking as he grows from a “scrabbling” colt into a powerful stallion. We go with Ken along the Silver Plume River into the Never Summer Range looking for Thunderhead, and see with him country that may never have been explored by man before. And there is pain and suffering, beauty and reconciliation, and love.

“All the hardships of her life at the ranch were mitigated by the natural beauty around her. It was like an ever-present, harmonious accompaniment, with which, when she wished, she could fall in step and be comforted.”  

From Flicka, we know that Ken and his family are church-goers who believe in God as the creator. In Thunderhead, faith, Nell’s most strongly, is woven throughout. Her family motto is, “Sine Deo Quid,” “Without God What?” Her faith sustains her while she thinks she is losing her husband’s love and their way of life. She does her best to impart that faith to each of her sons as they grow and prepare to leave home. Nell reads St. Augustine, and tells her boys about her uncle, a Jesuit priest, and what he taught her. 

Rob’s counsel follows Ken throughout the story as well. He tells Ken, “If you can only be your right self, well-behaved, cheerful, up-and-coming– when you are successful, then you’re not safe. You’re weak. You can’t take it.” He quotes something he read a long time ago; “It’s not life that matters–it’s the courage you bring to it.’”

An illustration by John Steuart Curry from the first edition.

Later, as Ken is on his way to Thunderhead’s race: “The greatest change was within him. It was so peculiar a feeling that he looked inside himself to inspect and name it. He decided finally that it must be fortitude. He had made acquaintance with the real article at last, and he knew it as an admixture of bitter disappointment with cheerfulness and readiness to go on and do whatever was in line.”

Ken’s quest for fortitude carries him through his last act in this book, when he does what is right rather than what he wishes were right. Again, he is living out his dad’s training, that he has to do his best to care for the animals who are his responsibility. He is also doing what he can to care for his mother, show respect to his father, and secure peace for the future. 

Warnings for sensitive readers:

There are frank discussions about horse breeding. It isn’t crude, but you might want to avoid this story if you’re not ready to talk about animals being in heat, or what a stallion’s role is in his herd. 

Rob explains to Ken that Thunderhead’s upbringing delayed his sex life. 

In the first snowstorm of the winter, a mare dies and coyotes eat her and her colt. Another mare steps in a badger hole and breaks her leg. We know she is also eaten. 

The first time Thunderhead disappears from the ranch, he gets attacked by an eagle, and saves himself by biting off the eagle’s leg. It’s bloody, but not graphic. 

Flicka has a rough time giving birth to her second foal. There is some description of the vet having to pull the foal, and eventually using forceps. 

Rob’s favorite horse foals in a snowstorm and dies. 

Thunderhead kills the Albino in a bloody fight. 

Rob is prone to using d**n, God d**n, and h***.

You may read our review of the first book in O’Hara’s Wyoming trilogy, My Friend Flicka, here.