In the 1950’s and 60’s, Grosset & Dunlap published about 40 books, written by various authors, under the label of “Famous Horse Stories.” My understanding is that most of these books were already in print at some point (most were from the 1940’s and 50’s originally), but G&D brought them together in a sort of collection. Several of the authors were quite well known at the time, like Thomas Hinkle, Glenn Balch, and Henry Larom. Most of the books have a western/ranch setting, although I have come across some set in other “horsey” surrounds, like Dorothy Lyons’s horse show books.
Because I loved horses and horse stories so much when I was a kid, I collected these whenever I came across them. Back in the day, before the internet was the thing that it is now, finding an out-of-print book that fit into a collection was really a bonanza. Nowadays I just get onto eBay and type in what I’m looking for and can nearly always find it, even if I’m not willing to pay the price. But in my teen years, most of my book collecting was done by sifting through piles of books in musty antique shops. Oh the joy when I found a Famous Horse Story, or a book by Albert Payson Terhune, or a Judy Bolton mystery! And then the agony – was it really worth $5 or $8 or $13?? (Here is a tip for used-book shopping: you see the book you want on the shelf. Place your hand on the book. And then, before you open it or check the price, tell yourself what the maximum amount is that you would be willing to pay to add this book to your permanent collection. Then check the price!)
At any rate, as part of my (very slow-moving) goal to read/reread all of the books in my personal collection, several of these Famous Horse Stories have come up in my lottery drawing recently, so you can expect to see them on the blog over the next few months. I own maybe half the titles published under this label, and I’m honestly not sure if I ever read all the ones I own. And it’s been a very long time since I have read the ones I did read, so if I end up particularly liking an author, it may be a chance to invest in some more of his works (via the easy, eBay way).
And so, on to the actual book for which this review is being written! Midnight: Wild Stallion of the West. And already I’m going to start rambling again, because I’ve been struck by how many of the titles from this era employ the [Name]:[Description] style. Plain old Midnight just isn’t good enough!
Rutherford Montgomery is best known (in 1950’s horse-story circles) for his Golden Stallion series, seven titles revolving around the same horse/characters. I own several of those, so I’m sure we’ll get to them eventually. Midnight, however, appears to be a stand-alone, although I have another book by Montgomery, Crazy Kill Range, that I believe may be a loose sequel (as Midnight takes place in Crazy Kill Range), so I’ll be reading that soon.
Montgomery’s books definitely fall into the western/ranch category, and Midnight in many ways is not so much a story as it is several vignettes of western mustang life. The book opens with Sam, an old prospector, quietly enjoying life on the porch of his cabin. He lives alone and, we later find out, built his cabin back in the day when all the land was open and public. Since then, the property has been purchased by a rich rancher named Major Howard, an “Easterner” who doesn’t really understand the culture of his new home. However, he allows Sam to continue living in the cabin because Sam isn’t really hurting anything.
Major Howard raises cattle and finely-bred horses. One of his mares, Lady Ebony, likes to graze near Sam’s cabin. Sam has become very attached to the horse and offers to buy her from the Major. Major Howard doesn’t want to sell Lady Ebony as he intends to race her. Sarcastically, he tells Sam that he can buy Lady Ebony for $500, confident that Sam doesn’t have a twentieth of that to his name. But little does Major Howard know! Sam actually has a secret little vein of gold up in the hills that he mines from time to time. He’s kept it quiet so that other people don’t horn in on the region, but he knows that if he spends a couple of weeks up there he can get the $500. So he packs up his bags and heads for the hills.
While he’s gone, Lady Ebony gets swept up into a band of wild horses. Their leader, a vicious chestnut stallion, is heading over the mountains for the winter, and takes Lady Ebony with him. So, when Sam gets back with his money, Major Howard accuses him of stealing the mare and Sam ends up getting arrested. The rest of the story isn’t really about Sam all that much – instead, we follow Lady Ebony as she is part of the chestnut’s band. Eventually she breaks free of the herd and returns to the pasture near Sam’s (now abandoned) cabin. She has a foal from the chestnut, a black colt named (you guessed it) Midnight. Throughout the book, while we mostly focus on Midnight and his adventures, we also get little snippets of updates of the falsely-accused Sam, pining away in prison, yearning for his freedom. (I’ll leave you to guess whether or not he is eventually freed, but here’s a hint: it’s a children’s book.)
In a lot of ways, this book reminded me of Jim Kjelgaard’s works. It was really a story about wilderness life and survival. And despite the fact that this is a children’s book, so we end up with happy endings for Midnight (and Sam), the story doesn’t shy away from the fact that, in the wild, only the strong survive. There is a lot of death in this story, but it isn’t really portrayed gruesomely or for dramatic effect: it just is.
One of the animals that is involved in Midnight’s story is an old buck deer. He is described as being crafty and intelligent. But eventually, he is overtaken and killed by a pack of wolves.
The end of the monarch was the destined end of all wild dwellers. The end of a life of struggle and constant alertness. The law of the wild was fulfilled. While youth and vigor gave him power and speed the buck lived and went his way, but when that strength slipped from him he went down before the gray killers.
While I didn’t love Midnight the way that I love a lot of Kjelgaard’s books – it somehow lacked the warmth and personal touch of his works – Montgomery’s story was a good one nonetheless. I feel like so much of children’s literature these days focuses on feelings, and making sure you understand your feelings, and don’t hurt anyone else’s feelings, and remember – your feelings are what define you, and how you feel is what decides what you are, and it’s honestly just plain ridiculous. I’d much rather have kids read books like Midnight – because somehow his story about how the strong survive also comes across as a reminder that the strong must care for the weak, or the weak will not make it. He writes a story about balance – the circle of life, if you will – how every living thing has its place, not in a touchy-feely now-we-should-all-be-vegans kind of way, but realistically. Every living thing has its part to play. This is a story with a lot of grit and a lot of death, but also a book that is positive and hopeful, because death is also a natural part of life.
And despite all the death, Montgomery’s book still comes across as one written by someone who loves the wilderness about which he’s writing. His dedication is to “Earl Hammock, who knows the value of the lonesome places” and I feel like that really summarizes a lot of what this book is about.
Anyway, I’ve rambled on long enough. A decent and interesting read, especially if you like horses or western wildlife, and I’m looking forward to delving into some more of my long-forgotten Famous Horse Stories soon.