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Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Cinderella Horse--The Eighty-Dollar Champion by Elizabeth Letts

This book is as its title proclaims the story of Snowman, an eighty dollar champion but it is so much more. It is also the story of the role of horses in the pre-World War II era and the changes in the years following that event that also changed our use of horses. It is the story of two young Dutch immigrants to the United States, who through hard work and faith in the future made a life for themselves and, eventually, their six children in a new land. It describes life in '50's-'60's Long Island and New York City among the private girls' schools and horse shows of the very rich.

At the heart of this interwoven tale is the story of a man and his horse. A horse who in his first appearance in the narrative grabs us as firmly as he did the heart of sensible, unsentimental horseman, Harry de Leyer. Harry, in charge of the horses used to teach young monied ladies of the Knox School how to ride, is looking for inexpensive, gentle horses at an auction in Pennsylvania. Arriving too late to have his pick he spies a moth eaten old work horse, his white coat rubbed off in places and dirty in others, headed into the truck going to the slaughter house. Standing tall, with his head held high, the horse gives Harry a steady and determined eye that Harry cannot resist. The spirit is there and Harry reluctantly hands over $80 for a horse he isn't sure is worth the proverbial plugged nickel but he must do it--he cannot ignore the look of the horse he names Snowman. For those readers who were not around in the time of this story $80 will probably sound like a pittance but my parents were paying $68 a month without utilities in a nice two bedroom apartment in Chelsea that now goes for almost $2000 a month! $80 was a lot for a man who had very little.

But this is how this love story begins and like Harry, without knowing quite why, we fall in love with Snowman, too. He is the horse the frightened girls ride to get confidence, the one who lets the de Leyer children ride him bareback and the horse, who, when summer comes, and he is taking up space and eating without contributing to his upkeep, is sold reluctantly but unemotionally by Harry to a good home and a neighbor several miles away. He is also the horse who defies all kinds of attempts to keep in pastured at that neighbor's and leaps paddock fences, one time pulling a lead with a heavy tire on it, to return to Harry and the home he loves. What else could be done but to take him back with loving arms?

But Snowman's leaping of fences inspires Harry to try training him as a jumper to be entered into those exclusive horse shows. Snowman, an old work horse from some Amish farm, and Harry, a riding teacher from the Knox School and the owner of the jumper, to compete against thoroughbreds and amateur riders employed by wealthy owners to win ? A fairy tale! And indeed, it is---a fairy tale with a Cinderella Horse and his Dutch Prince. And at the end, after 26 years a fairy tale with the hero dying with his faithful human by his side. The man left alone to dig the grave with his sons. The fairy tale to be told here by Elizabeth Letts and one to cherish and remember.

The only thing as a reader I would have liked was to know what Harry and his family went on to do in the gap between Snowy's death in 1974 and the very short epilogue that takes place in 2005 - 2008. But, perhaps, after the excitement of life with Snowy, the rest was just too much of an anti-climax. This is the story,after all, about The Eighty Dollar Champion but, if Harry hadn't been the fellow in Pennsylvania that snowy night in 1956, Snowman might have been one of hundreds of nameless horses rendered for glue and dog food.

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