Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Eighty-Dollar Champion by Elizabeth Letts

This July, not unlike last July, was a bit of a weird reading streak for me.  I don't read a whole lot of short stories, and I don't read a whole lot of non-fiction, but this July featured a little of both.  The randomizer (Because who makes decisions when computers can do it for you? Er, please contact me for use of that unique tag line when you're coming out with your next "robots take over the world" comedy) helpfully chose for me a book that, if I chose my own books, would probably not have made it off the shelf anytime soon but was well worth reading.


The Eighty-Dollar Champion is one of those horse stories that should unquestionably become a Disney movie.  When Dutch immigrant Harry de Leyer arrives at a horse auction in Amish Country Pennsylvania on a cold February day, the best horses have already been sold to the highest bidders and the bidding is over.  No horses are around except for the ones that didn't sell that are being loaded up and sent away to be killed.  Not wanting to return to Long Island, where he teaches schoolgirls to ride at The Knox School, empty handed, Harry spots a plow horse with a certain look in his eye that he's sure will make a good teaching horse.  Eighty dollars later he's bound for home with a worse for the wear horse that is about to become a part of his growing family. 

Snowman turned out to be just the calm, patient mount Harry had hoped for, quietly teaching new riders the skill.  But when Harry tries to sell him to a local farmer to free up room in his stable during the off season, Snowman proves himself to be much more.  Little did de Leyer know that his affable plow horse had a penchant for jumping and the heart of a champion that would lead the pair to fame and fortune in the dangerous sport of show jumping.  

Elizabeth Letts didn't necessarily do Snowman's story many favors.  Bulked up with unnecessary historical background (this just in, horses falling out of popular use for transportation by the 1950s) and a grating amount of repetition, likely in the name of creating some dramatic effect, fall flat.  A little dramatic tension, a little reminder here and there of the significance of Snowman's success is understandable, but Harry de Leyer and Snowman's story is so inherently heart-warming and triumphant, there's really no need for Letts to go the extra mile to point out its significance.  She goes many extra miles, however, to the point of her cumbersome sentimentality becoming downright patronizing. 

Were in not for the inherent attractiveness of the story of a horse bound for death who defeats the odds to become a great show jumper, I might have laid this book aside unfinished.  Happily, the meat of Letts' account of Harry's determination and skill as a horseman and Snowman's joy in jumping and eagerness to please the man who rescued him from an early death was enough to keep me hanging on.  There's no doubt that Snowman's story might be a little lesser known, but it is easily as inspirational as any horse story going.  By the end, I was happy to have "met" the irrepressible Snowman and the man who saw Snowman's worth long before he urged the horse to show jumping greatness. 

Tomorrow, he would hitch her up to the wagon to lug corn to the silo, and he knew the horse would plod along, as quietly as before.  But just because you are hitched to a burden does not mean that you do not sometimes want to fly.