Young adult pony fiction about rescuing a horse to become a champion
Content warning: racial stereotypes, slurs
When I was young, I was an avid pony fiction fan and have even written about how it is at heart a feminist genre of books. So when I saw this book at the Lifeline Book Fair with fuchsia page edges, gold lettering and a pretty grey horse on the cover, of course I bought it. I realised despite this blog’s namesake and my shelves being full of them, it’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a book with tinted edges and this one caught my eye.
“The One Dollar Horse” by Lauren St John is a horse fiction novel about a teenage girl called Casey Blue who lives in East London. With her single father recently out of prison, Casey does not have many resources to support her pie in the sky dream: winning the Badminton Horse Trials. However the closest Casey can get right now is volunteering at a local riding school and riding one of the ponies after all the students have finished. However when she comes across an emaciated and wild-eyed horse on his way to the knackery, her split-second decision to save him changes everything.
This is a classic horse story of overcoming adversity, finding a pony and achieving greatness. In some ways, St John had an interesting premise: the impact of incarceration on a family. I felt that this aspect of the story was handled quite sensitively and St John explores how discrimination on the basis of an irrelevant criminal record can haunt someone, even after they have done their time. I thought that Storm Warning’s storyline was strong, and the trauma he experienced takes a long time to heal from. A high-spirited horse with physical and psychological damage is a big challenge, and I really enjoyed the patience and creativity Casey used to build trust and win him over.
However, there were quite a few flaws in this book that I was not able to overlook. First of all was the sheer number of dei ex machina. Nobody can fault Casey’s passion and drive, but ultimately, despite her lack of experience and resources, things just work out for her. She ultimately receives a trainer, accommodation, stabling, farrier services, tack, clothing and money all through luck and generosity of others. I certainly appreciate that many of the riders Casey is up against come from extremely privileged backgrounds with all the money and support in the world, and that eventing is an incredibly expensive sport. I’m not too proud to admit that perhaps some of this is envy, and that any teen girl with a pony wishes that everyone would drop everything and throw money and time at them to fulfil their dreams of competing. However, there were just too many things that fell into Casey’s lap, as much as I appreciated that she’d had a tough time and deserved a bit of luck.
However the real issue I had with this book was the inadvertent racism. One of the volunteers at the riding school is of Chinese heritage, and St John refers to her as “the Chinese girl” Jin multiple times (instead, of course, just by her name Jin), and her sole role in the book is to spend her time assisting Casey and facilitating her uncle dressed in “black martial arts pyjamas with a dragon embroidered on the pocket” to administer acupuncture, whose speech St John writes in an exaggerated “Chinese” accent. I’m sure you don’t need my assistance to identify the stereotypes. She also describes a character as “g*psy dark” and is disparaging towards characters who are overweight. Despite being quite understanding of Casey’s situation, St John writes in rather a sneering, snobby tone about the other people who live in her apartment block and who she goes to school with. You would think, given her sympathy for Casey’s background, she would be more sympathetic towards people of similar backgrounds but sadly no. Even poor Mrs Smith cops it a bit being described at the tender age of 62 as an “older woman”.
While I enjoyed the fantasy of rescuing a horse to build an unshakable bond, and the complexity added by Casey’s father’s challenging background, ultimately I had to suspend disbelief just a little too often and the effect was frequently interrupted by St John’s likely unconscious but nevertheless pervasive sense of superiority.