Nov 18, 2020

The Runaways

by Glenn Balch

     I was hesitant to try this one after the last disappointment I had with Glenn Balch, but knew upon the first page that this edition hadn't been dumbed down or abridged. And it's quite different from other horse stories I've read- so even though some parts felt predictable and the children's dialog a bit stilted (because English was their second language in the story) I found it likable enough. The main character is Jan, a boy whose family fled Latvia due to war. They settle uneasily in America, working on someone's farm. But this isn't lush green pastures with flowers and chickens running around like they were used to back home- it's dry sparse range country. Their main task is to tend a grain field, but the boy Jan longs to see and ride horses. He's jealous of the ranch owner's son, who can drive a truck, has a fancy rifle, a good horse, and roping skills. When Jan's mother wishes for warmer winter blankets, the boy makes traps to catch wild ducks and geese on a nearby body of water. He has no idea that in this new country there are laws protecting animals that don't belong to anyone, that he's trapping illegally out of season. When game wardens show up questioning the family, Jan basically panics. He remembers that his brother and grandfather back in Latvia were taken away by authorities for breaking some law, and never returned. He doesn't want to die at the hands of police or soldiers (so he imagines) so at night he grabs some supplies and runs away into the hills.

There he holes up for a while in an abandoned dugout shelter he finds by chance. Soon notices a band of wild horses that regularly grazes nearby, and realizes the golden-colored stallion must be the wild horse ranch kids talked about back home- everyone seemed to want to catch and own that stallion. Jan figures out how to survive in the wild (reminscent of Hatchet), and is planning to cross the mountain range where he hopes he can find work and nobody will have heard about his poaching mishap. But something holds him back- he sees a cougar stalking the horse herd, and comes across the bodies of colts it killed. He loves watching the young colts play and determines to protect them, by hunting down the cougar. (This part of the story reminded me so much of The White Puma). The big cat is secretive and intelligent, so this takes a long time. But when Jan finally deems the horses are safe from predation, he still can't leave- for now the horses have become used to his presence and he thinks maybe he has a chance to catch the golden stallion. His sister found out where he's living and brings him food supplies, she also brings him a rope when he tells her about seeing the wild stallion. However he hesitates to just throw the rope over the horse- instead determines to win its trust- by hanging out with the horses day after day they come to accept him until finally he can make his move to capture the stallion.

But when he finally has the wild horse under his control, he realizes it is unhappy to be separated from the band of mares. He feels guilty for taking the stallion away from the life it's always known, and also wonders how he will take care of it if he travels on across the mountains, or if it will attract too much attention- being such a fine horse for a boy (except it's actually rather dirty and scruffy now). The final chapter is Jan deliberating what to do- and because it's a kid's book I guessed what would be his final move. Would have liked to see a bit more closure on that, what the consequence or reactions were, but oh well.

I do have to say, a key component of Jan's plan to approach the wild horses and get them used to him, took me by complete surprise. In fact it's a little shocking and not for the squeamish. I wonder how well it might have worked in a real situation.

Rating: 3/5                     192 pages, 1963


  1. Ahahahaha omg you can't just say he did something shocking to get the horse and then not tell us what it is. I'm dying of suspense! What did he do?

  2. I knew someone would ask. He cut the head off a dead colt's carcasss and wore it over his own to crawl near the herd, pretending to be grazing. The mother of the dead colt started following him around and so the other horses got tamed more easily. I've read (and seen paintings) of native americans wearing animal skins to sneak closer to bison- but I never expected to read about a teenager in a J Fiction book doing this!


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