by John Steinbeck
I thought of this book because I saw it mentioned on The Zen Leaf among a list of banned books. I was really taken aback- what could be objectionable about The Red Pony? So I pulled my own copy (with lovely illustrations by Wesley Dennis) off the shelf to thumb through and refresh my memory.
Well, now I remember. It is kind of brutal. And the kid swears once or twice. Sorry, there will be some spoilers here, so don't read ahead if you want to avoid them.
The Red Pony is about a young boy living on a small ranch in California. It is really four short stories, which show Jody growing up, learning some bitter lessons about life and death. In the first story, Jody's father gives him a red pony, and it is his responsibility to care for it and train it. Jody delights in the pony's lively spirit and is proud to show him off to his friends. But one day the pony mistakenly gets left out in a rainstorm and becomes ill. The ranch hand, Billy Buck, tries to save the pony but it dies. The descriptions of the pony's sufferings are pretty stark. Jody is angry about the pony's death, and feels betrayed by Billy. The next story opens up with Jody venting his frustration on smaller creatures around him- teasing the dog, killing small birds, etc. Then his attention shifts when an old man shows up from the mountains. He says he was born on the ranch long ago, and now that his life is at an end, he wants to stay there until he dies. But Jody's father doesn't want him hanging around the ranch. In the third story, Jody is allowed to take his father's mare to be bred by a neighbor's stallion, and the new colt will be his. He and Billy watch carefully over the mare's pregnancy, but when it comes time for her to deliver the foal, something goes wrong and Billy must make an instant decision- to save the mare, or fulfill his promise to Jody and give him a live colt. In the last story, Jody's grandfather comes to visit, telling romanticized tales of the times he led a wagon train across the plains, to the delight of Jody, and the great annoyance of his father. Strife ensues when Jody's father openly admits he's sick of hearing his father-in-law's tales.
All the stories have a common theme of death. Jody's first colt dies, and so do his dreams (his fantasies of owning a fierce, prancing stallion were never realistic). His faith in Billy's infallible ability with horses dies. He sees the old man come to the ranch seeking a peaceful place to meet death, and being turned away. He sees his grandfather face the fact that his time of glory is passed, only interesting to small boys. And then he has to confront the reality that he can only have his longed-for colt if the mare dies. Not a pretty picture, all around. Jody isn't a nice, innocent little boy, either. But there's something in these stories that makes them vivid and real, throbbing with life, with the pain of growing up and the hardness of living on a small, poor ranch. I hate to see animals suffer as much as anyone, and yet I love this book. It is just so heartachingly real.
Rating: 4/5 ........ 120 pages, 1933