Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Hardest Left Turn a Series Ever Took

Long ago, I was a horse crazy kid living in the suburbs, where horses were scarce, but books were abundant. I don't remember the exact moment I met The Black Stallion, but I know that somewhere between the end of the 80s and the first few years of the 90s, I read all 21 books in the collected stallion-related series by one Walter Farley, with help of his son Steven to finish the final installment. And I adored every one of them. 

The first book deals with the titular stallion being stranded on a desert island, along with the only other survivor of a shipwreck, Alec Ramsey. Together they learn to survive, form a lifelong bond of friendship, and are eventually rescued and brought back to live in the suburbs of 1940s era New York, where the horse is discovered by a retired thoroughbred trainer named Henry Daily, trained up as a proper racehorse, and entered in a match race against the fictional racing stars Sun Raider and Cyclone. (Probably a take on the match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral, which took place just three years before The Black Stallion was published.) Spoilers - The Black Stallions wins. 

It's a fantastic story, later adapted into one of the most beautiful films ever made, staring Kelly Reno as a much younger than the book version, but brilliantly cast Alec, Mickey Rooney as Henry, and Teri Garr, who I absolutely adore. With cinematography by Caleb Deschanel (yep. Zooey and Emily's dad.). Again, a great story, with distinctly fantastical elements. 

The Black Stallion was followed up by 20 more installments in the series, mostly about The Black and a select few of his offspring, his sons Satan and Bonfire, and his daughter Black Minx, all, of course, following in their great sire's hoof prints and becoming world champion race horses. There is some broad artistic license throughout the series, starting with the Black's first son being trained as a racehorse, and entered in the Triple Crown (which he wins, off stage. A bold move for Farley, considering that at the time of writing and publication, thoroughbred racing was in the throes of the second longest dry spell between Triple Crown winners since the 37 years separating Affirmed and this year's American Pharoah.) Black Minx then goes on to win the Kentucky Derby. 

You can't do that in real life. Maybe The Black would be allowed special exception to enter the one off match race, but to enter any of the traditional stakes races, including the Triple Crown, your horse is going to have to be a Jockey Club registered Thoroughbred, which The Black and any of his potential foals would simply never be. Not to mention Bonfire, the who is a harness racer in the series, which is, again, an entirely different breed, with very specific skills and traits. 

But this is all curmudgeonly nit picking of the pickiest of nits. This is a fictional series about racehorses, after all. Readers want to read about champions wining races.  Some smudging of the boundaries of reality makes it all the more fun, even into the sort-of companion series about The Island Stallion. 

In The Island Stallion, Farley reworks the same basic elements of his first novel - boy, horse, hidden island - but instead of leaving, all the action takes place on the island itself. A kid named Steve finds a band of wild horses, descended from abandoned steeds of the Spanish Conquistadors, on a supposedly desolate rock of an island. And that's about it. He names the chestnut stallion on the island Flame, and he tames the horse just enough to ride him around inside the confines of the natural stone fortress that the horses call home. A little bit more fantasy, and 0 horse racing. Fine. Eventually, the reader assumes, Flame is going to become some sort of racing champion as well, and indeed that does happen, because 

- wait for it - 

Yeah. I'm absolutely not kidding. 
In The Island Stallion Races, published in 1955, aliens visit earth. Aliens who are so obsessed with horse racing that they offer to whisk Steve and Flame away to Cuba to participate in an international competition against the best race horses in the world. Aliens who dress like Nathan Detroit from Guys and Dolls, no less. There is a scene where the horse is loaded onto a spaceship, and flown across the ocean to an international race track.  

All the corners cut in the earlier tales of Farley's fictional horse racing dynasty are instantly erased by freaking ALIENS showing up to help some kid take some horse to some race in CUBA. If you're going to take a risk, why not? They'll read it. I did. I bought a copy, which still sits on a shelf above my desk, because I love that series, even with the bizarro  alien horse racing element tossed so casually in. The very best part? If you read the copy on the back of the book, there is absolutely nothing so much as hinting at the insanity within. All that's mentioned on the cover copy is that Flame is going to race, and that's going to be dangerous, with him being an untamed wild stallion and all. The Aliens come screaming out of left field in the first 50 pages of the book. And... that's it. They take Steve and Flame to race. Flame wins race. Flame goes home. Steve shrugs and pouts about his horse being faster than the legendary black stallion, racing up north in the US. Yes, The Black exists in this world, and one day goes on to meet Flame both on his island home, and later on the track in a legitimate race. 

So the next time you watch the movie, or just see the majestic image of the Black galloping down the beach, just remember that somewhere else in that same world, aliens are traveling to the Caribbean Sea to find Earth's Best Racehorse. 

Actually, this is mildly disappointing, now that I think about it. Why wasn't there an intergalactic horse race for Flame to win? Why stop at racing the Black, when he could be pitted against the fastest horses IN THE GALAXY???

Somewhere out there, is a true match for Flame, the magnificent Island Stallion*.

*this is still a book about horse racing.
So, what about you? Ever read something that was just completely bonkers, based on the cannon of the series up to that point? 


CHEEZ said...

There is just a bit too much to take in here, nice post.

Miss Cole said...

How bizarre! Twists like that kind of leave you wondering where the agent and editors went. I can't say I've ever read anything that weird. Talk about jumping the shark.

Mirka Breen said...

I have loved and admired horses from afar, after being kicked by one from up close. One has to know how to approach them.
Lovely post, and inspiring to maybe try again...

Anonymous said...

Wow, I wasn't expecting that. Loved the Black Stallion books.

Leandra Wallace said...

Lol! Wow. Just...wow. I read some of these books (not all 21) and now I'm disappointed I didn't stumble upon that one as a kid. But just..haha. I'm wondering if kid me would have loved it. =) I mainly devoured the Thoroughbred and Saddle Club series. Oh, and King of the Wind!

Lily Cate said...

I read most of the Saddle Club and Thoroughbred too!
One of my first attempts at writing was my own horse racing series, which I started when I was about 13, and was mostly just a list of awesome titles for my "books" :D

Mirka - yes, try it again!

I did eventually get a horse of my own (two actually) though it was short lived - interrupted by college, then city life. There was a brief stint working at a hunter/jumper stable at the end of college. (for the parents of a gold medal winning Olympic show jumper, no less!) And now I just don't think I could ever do all the daily work again. But an occasional ride once in a while? Yes please!

Cole- This was some years after the series debut, and I suspect the editors just shrugged and said, "Eh. It'll sell. You've done it again, Farley!"

Sondy said...

Yes! I was a similar Black Stallion fan! I counted my money for awhile by how many Black Stallion books I could buy for $2.95! (Man o War was $3.95.)
But I didn't like The Island Stallion Races much -- one of the only ones I didn't read many times.
The funny thing was... back in sixth grade I remember misspelling the word "coconut" as "cocoanut" on a spelling test and being SURE I'd seen it spelled that way somewhere. Well, 30 years later... I was reading all the Walter Farley books to my son. I read "The Island Stallion Races" -- and there was "cocoanut" right on the page. I *knew* I'd seen it spelled that way! (Incidentally, my son was a big Bruce Coville and aliens fan, and he loved The Island Stallion Races.)