Nov 30, 2009

The Horse Boy

A Father's Quest to Heal His Son
by Rupert Isaacson

I first found out about this book from Stuff As Dreams Are Made On. I've always been interested in reading about autism, and of course I love books about animals. So I was eager to pick this one up, especially after reading Wolf Totem, which is also set in Mongolia. Whereas Wolf Totem was all about the warlike side of Mongolian culture, and its interaction with wolves and other wildlife, The Horse Boy is a story of healing, about a people who embrace Buddhism and shamanism.

It began when Isaacson learned that his son Rowan was autistic. They tried many traditional therapies and diet changes; nothing seemed to help. At five years old Rowan failed to interact with other children, threw enormous temper tantrums, could barely communicate and was not toilet trained. His behavior was becoming harder and harder for his parents to manage. Then Isaacson took Rowan along to a convention of traditional healers from native tribes around the world, which he attended in capacity as a journalist. He was surprised and delighted to see Rowan's behavior improve at the convention. Later he found that Rowan, fascinated by all animals, seemed to have a special connection with a neighbor's horse- his temper tantrums dissipated and his communication improved while on horseback. He wondered if some kind of therapy involving horses and faith healing could help his son, and came up with a plan to take Rowan across Mongolia on horseback, to seek healing from their shamans.

It is an incredible journey to read about. The family traveled over vast stretches of steppes, treacherous bogs and mountain passes, pausing to visit sacred lakes, streams, and shamans along the way. The trip was fraught with difficulties, not the least that Rowan often refused to get on a horse at all, and threw screaming tantrums at transition points. And by the end of it all, although their son was still very much autistic, he had made incredible strides, including making friends with other children for the first time in his life.

It's amazing what this family went through to try and help their son. At the same time, it was often a dull read for me. There's nothing spectacular about the writing or descriptions. The story seemed to focus more on the parents' frustrations and difficulties, especially when things did not go the way they had envisioned, than on Rowan himself, or his relationship with the horses, which was what I had looked forward to reading about. It's a painfully honest story, one that still leaves me feeling skeptical: was Rowan really healed by the shaman's rituals? was he responding positively to being in nature and around animals? or were his improvements something that would have occurred anyways, whether in Outer Mongolia or at home? No one can say. While I greatly admire the family for the incredible lengths they went to (upon returning home Isaacson also established an equestrian therapy program for autistic children) the book itself was just not very engaging for me.

I borrowed this book from the public library.

Rating: 3/5                    357 pages, 2009

More opinions at:
Bermudaonion's Weblog
Age 30+ A Lifetime of Books


bermudaonion said...

I listened to the audio version of this book and really liked it. I felt for Rupert and Kristen and fell in love with the little Mongolian boy who befriended Rowan. Sorry you didn't enjoy the book as much as I did.

Biblibio said...

I wonder if the reason you disliked this book where others liked it is a matter of point-of-view. Perhaps (and I hope I don't sound rude... that's hardly my intention) you looked at it more from the novel-style angle. For instance, you say that you remain sceptical regarding certain points. It's a sentiment that mirrors plot hole frustration, yet it cannot be so because the book is non-fiction. (This theory is, of course, speculation, and is therefore most likely false.)

Obviously it's all right if the book wasn't engaging for you. As interesting as the premise sounds, this doesn't actually seem like the type of book for me either (I'm quite particular about my memoirs...). Great review - it's always fun to spark pointless conversations, no?

Jeane said...

Bermudaonion- I wonder if I'd like the documentary (or audio book) better. I've watched the film trailers and actually felt very moved- but somehow the book did not have the same effect on me.

Biblibio- You have a good point. I often feel frustrated with unanswered questions/outcomes in memoirs, probably because I'm so used to reading novels and of course nothing is tied up so neatly in real life! It's not fair of me to expect nonfiction to be the same, but at a gut level it's hard not to read them with similar expectations sometimes.

josh said...

this is my first time ever seeing this book but it sounds like it could be good