Monday, September 26, 2011

Preteen Girls, Horses, and Aliens

Preteen Girls, Horses and Aliens

In the mid fifties, I was a preteen girl at Brookside Elementary School, and I was in love with Rod Gillespie and horses. The closest I ever got to dating Rod was sending him anonymous Valentine cards and standing wistfully outside his house. If I had been ten years older, they would probably have called that harassment.
The closest I got to horses was riding one each weekend for a few weeks and reading books about them. You’ll notice that Rod’s name isn’t in the title, so we’ll drop him at this point, the way I used to wish he’d drop--the sweet & beautiful--Leslie and move right along to those horse books.
Diana Fields, Mary Schneider and I used to read every book involving horses in the library. Our favorites were the Walter Farley “Black Stallion” books, written in the 50's and still being reprinted today. Some of you may have heard of them. Farley seemed to share our love of all things equine, but his true focus was on the Sport of Kings. And, since he wrote about horseracing, we dutifully read about horseracing. I can still describe how best to weight the saddle of a horse entered in a handicap race, how Arabian horses have one less pair of ribs that other horses, and I know a little about the hoof disease, thrush. In fact, I think several toes on my right foot are suffering from it.
Well, Farley gave the Black Stallion a good run for his money, if you’ll excuse the expression. Then, evidently having grown bored with the horse or his humans, he began a new series about The Island Stallion. Actually, I think he must have grown tired of the humans, since The Island Stallion was really the Black Stallion, now a red bay and stuck on an island. Otherwise, it was pretty much the same horse --- the fastest in the world and partially feral just to make things exciting.
So, when is she going to get to young adult science fiction? Real soon now.
In the first Island Stallion book, Farley had a vacationing family discover an island no one knew about or, at least no one felt worth investigating. It appeared to be nothing but sheer impenetrable cliffs on the exterior which gave the impression that the whole island was nothing but one giant boulder stuck out in the middle of the ocean. The adults found traces of landings hundreds of years before possibly by pirates or explorers.
In the meantime, their son found a way through the rocks to the interior of the island and discovered a small herd of feral horses, the descendents of those that the sailors had left behind.
After a book or two stuck on the island, Farley evidently couldn’t resist getting that red stallion into a race. There was just one problem. How? No one knew about the horses, and the family--now studying the artifacts left behind--didn’t have a big enough boat to transport a horse. Poor WF was in a severe writer’s bind, one of his own making.
At last, he came up with the obvious solution.
Yes, aliens. (See. I told you we’d get to YA SF real soon.)
It’s been a few decades since I read any Walter Farley books, so the aliens’ reason for landing on a tiny island kind of escapes me. Actually, it probably escaped Farley at the time. In any case, the aliens agreed to help the boy transport The Island Stallion off of his island, and even went so far as to plunk the boy and the horse down at a race track which (conveniently) was about to have a match race between the two best horses in the world. As in all the Farley books, the horse wins after overcoming nearly insurmountable difficulties. The boy and his horse return to the island and the aliens are neither seen nor heard of again, not even in future books.
That last plot point was a terrible shame from my point of view. Suddenly, between one chapter of a book and the next, I was enamored with aliens and space travel rather than horses. Specifically, what was it that did it? That old, but ever new, Sensawonda thingy. In a third rate book from an author who used aliens strictly as deus ex machina?
Let me explain. It was the aliens’ ship that did it. The only thing I really remember about the aliens themselves is that they had crystal clear eyes. A problem, if you think about it, both from an anatomical and visual image point of view.
But that ship! Wow! First, it was invisible. There was something about it that made it invisible to humans. Maybe you needed crystal clear eyes to see invisible ships. In any case, it saved Farley a lot of trouble trying to describe an alien setting.
More importantly, the ship was alive! Well, parts of it were alive. There were visible wall panels which appeared to be constantly altering tapestries. The tapestries altered their appearance when they were affected by the emotions of the inhabitants of the ship. Yet, they weren’t really creatures. They were just part of the ship. This was my very first experience with the concept of biogenetic engineering, and I just ate it up.

I got my friends, Diana and Mary, to read the book. That wasn’t hard, since we were all so into horses. And, somehow, the book or myself got them hooked on the idea of space travel and visiting aliens, too.
We started a club, just the three of us. We had two main activities. The first was something that, years later, might have been called role-playing. We took turns being the pilots of freight spaceships and the representatives of Solar System planets and we bargained for dock space and traded commodities. This sounds a lot more sophisticated than it actually was. However, we –did- discover G7, a planet in the Solar System that no one else knew existed but us. (G7, coincidentally, was also the name of the "secret ingredient" in Gleem toothpaste.)
That was the first activity. The other was more faanish or at least more imaginative and creative. We used to imagine what visiting aliens would make of mid-twentieth century culture and technology. Yes. Mary, Diana and I would sit around and muse what someone from another world would make of American Bandstand or meatloaf. (That's meatloaf, not Meatloaf.)
Eventually, we branched out into discussion of time travel, since it was more fun having our imaginary and presumably uneducated “guests” marveling at the things in our day-to-day life. Westerns were very popular at that time, and they had horses, so we often envisioned the reaction of people from the 1870’s to 1890's to the mind-boggling tech of 1950’s America. ( Oh yes, all of our guests were male and handsome. Come on! We were girls just reaching puberty. What did you expect?)
I moved away from Brookside not long after this, and lost contact with both my friends. But the habit of trying to envision reactions of historical figures--and characters in books--to common twentieth century human activities remained with me. Generally I don’t discuss this little hobby with others. I tried once to explain what the three of us used to do for fun, once I reached high school, only to have a couple of smarta$$ boys ask me how George Washington was doing today. Sigh. They just didn’t get it.
The other habit I developed as a result of reading The Island Stallion, I also learned to keep to myself. The habit of reading science fiction. I came a cropper on this pastime while I was still in junior high. Sorry, if I've mentioned it here before.
Not long after reading Farley’s book, I started looking for books with aliens in the school library. I found a few but they were hardly classics of the genre since they were written for children. YA SF is far different from what it was back then. Actually, most everything YA is vastly different.
But I persevered in my search, doing better when the family went to the public library in Wilmington. There, I found Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Martian Chronicles and Something Wicked This Way Comes. I gulped down Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol books whole. It was like they were made for me! I admit I even tried to write my own Time Patrol stories, but I only wrote down the first chapter. Many more chapters buzzed around in my head, complete with intrigue and death-defying adventures, boys and girls in love but circumstances causing them to think the other had betrayed them, etc.

Finally, I discovered Nevil Shute’s On the Beach and An Old Captivity. And that’s when I got into serious trouble. We had a list of approved books from which to choose when reading for English book reports. On the Beach was definitely not on the list so, when I got up and gave my report on a book describing the apocalyptic end of the Earth, my teacher was not amused. Queen Victoria herself would have been more amused. The next thing I knew my report was reported to my parents. I was in even more trouble than when an earlier teacher told them that I wrote left-handed!
That stifled and squelched me for a while. I did my book reports on (yawn) approved books from the English reading list. I dutifully checked out historical novels from the public library. Of course, I envisioned what the characters from the past would make of twentieth century America, when the government time-travel laboratory in which I worked brought them to my time and town where I would act as both host and researcher.
But you can’t keep an SF or fantasy-lover down. I had Aunt Dorothy to thank for that. When she came from from Baltimore, she used to bring huge boxes of paperbacks with her. Aunt Dorothy loved a good detective story and so did my dad. She also loved the occasional SF book and horror. So, while my dad was gathering up all of the Gardners and Queens, I’d poke around and make off with Ace Doubles like One in Three Hundred and The Transposed Man. Then Dad and I would battle over who got to read the Alfred Hitchcock short story collections first.
There’s always a way to find some speculative fiction to read and let your imagination roam free, no matter who tries to prevent it.
Ask George. He knew how to deal with oppression.

Sherry Thompson, once researcher-host to Wyatt Earp but, alas, never to George. ;-P


  1. The book that got me reading science fiction was The Runaway Robot by Lester Del Ray (ghost written). I enjoyed that so much, I think it influenced the type of stories I liked when it comes to space stuff. Both plot and humor.

  2. Hi, Rick!
    Given that The Runaway Robot was ghost-written, I'm assuming that it wasn't classic SF. In my opinion, the starting point for both of us proves that young adults can be gripped by the sense of wonder via all sorts of vehicles.

    I think we're born with a longing for "the other". For some of us, reading speculative fiction of whatever kind triggers a sense of wonder, a kind of recognition of something we always hoped existed. Confronted by a story which reflects this, our reaction is, "I knew it!"

    Once bitten by "Charlotte's Web" or "Watership Down", do young adult readers ever fall back into more mundane books like what I call "school stories"? Many young readers do, and I apologize for saying "fall back into" about their choices. No matter the age of the reader, to each his own when it comes to literary taste.

    Just because I prefer speculative fiction by no means makes it superior to other genres, whether for children or adults. However, I do believe readers of SF or fantasy are more likely to exercise their imaginations when reading.

    Thanks for responding! Alas, I haven't gotten to your latest book. (The apt thingie just gets weirder.)

  3. With me, it was Andre Norton's "Daybreak 2250" around the same time Star Trek first came on the air. The combination was what did it.

  4. Hi, Anonymous!
    I watched Star Trek TOS when I had time in college, often confusing it with Lost in Space. (blush)
    I never read Norton's "Daybreak 2250", though I did read a number of her YA & adult books. I assume Daybreak 2250 is SF, given the "2250". What was it about it that hooked you?