by Enid Bagnold
This is a story set in a small English village in the 1920's. Its protagonist is a teenage girl named Velvet, the local butcher's daughter. Although her father does well, she has lots of siblings, so there isn't enough money to indulge in her dreams- owning a horse. But when a horse considered a local nuisance- a black and white piebald with one blue eye who is constantly jumping fences and running about the streets- gets puts up for a raffle, Velvet wins. In another stroke of unexpected luck, an elderly gentleman becomes aware of her love for horses, and leaves her five ponies in his will. Now Velvet is the sudden owner of six horses. She and her sisters ride the ponies in small local gymkhanas, with various success. Then, inspired by a comment of her father's assistant who is an ex-jockey, Velvet gets the idea to train and enter the piebald in the most difficult and competitive equestrian event in the country- the Grand National steeplechase. There are several problems to overcome: her horse is wild and untrained, she's too young to enter the race, and at the time only men were allowed to participate, as it was considered too dangerous for female riders. Velvet is determined, though, and won't let any of these things stop her from pursuing her dream.
National Velvet is one of those books I almost missed falling in love with. It sat on my shelf for five or six years, and twice I tried reading it, giving up within the first twenty pages, finding it dull. But I think it just takes the right mindset and appreciation, for the third time I picked it up I fell in love with the story. It's not just about a girl who loves horses, it's also a story about growing up, about living in a large family, about life in a small coastal English village. Velvet's family is full of interesting characters and family dynamics. The sisters squabbling, keeping secrets, banding together against outsiders (or their parents). The obstinate little brother who makes the funniest remarks, so like any toddler with his fits of tears and fury. The solemn authority of their mother- who once won a medal for swimming the English channel but obscures her former glory in bustling housework. The at-first mysterious figure of Mi, the butcher's assistant, who doesn't speak of his past until the sudden influx of horses into the butcher's field can't help revealing his interest and knowledge of them. And besides her involvement with horses, Velvet has other trials- she's prone to fits of nerves and anxiety, she has to wear a gold bar wedged between her teeth to correct something (I had braces for six years, how I could relate!).
This is a wonderful book, and I wish I could find more reviews to point you to. Most of the ones I came across online were of various film adaptations, which changed the story somewhat- making Velvet an orphan, making the piebald her only horse, or a beautiful well-bred horse instead of the awkward unruly creature he was (potential hidden in an unlikely form!)
Rating: 4/5 ........ 288 pages, 1935
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