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Wednesday Book Review: ‘Raja: Story of a Racehorse’

Horse Nation book critic Erin McCabe reviews this middle grade novel by Anne Hambleton that gives insight into the life of an ex-racehorse.

From Erin:

If Horses Could Talk…

I would bet money that any nice person who has ever owned a horse has wished, at least once, that their horse could talk and tell the story of that particular scar or the reason behind that particular naughty behavior (although maybe in that instance we should be thankful our horses can’t really give us an earful).  Those of us blessed with an OTTB (or 3.. or 5…) probably wish even more fervently that our horses could tell us something about their pasts.

In her middle grade novel Raja: Story of a Racehorse, Anne Hambleton takes that idea and runs (haha) with it.  In the tradition of Black Beauty, the novel is told from Raja’s perspective, beginning at the beginning—as a foal in Ocala, Florida.  From there the story gallops along at a two-minute clip, moving quickly through Raja’s promising start as a race horse until a freak accident ends his career just on the brink of Kentucky Derby greatness.

What follows is a heart-breaking exploration of many of the potential outcomes for ex-racers, as Raja moves from the track to the hunter/jumper circuit, from the auction to a horse rescue, from the NYPD stable to another brush with the killer buyer.  Finally, though, Raja finds a forever home with a former steeplechase jockey turned equine dentist.  Even though we get a lovely happy ending, the back story makes it bittersweet enough that I got a little choked up (yeah, I am a total sap) and I don’t think it was just because I was putting my own ponies in Raja’s shoes.

If I were going to be a stickler, I would say that some of the dialogue feels a bit clunky because it’s used to convey lots of information.  I might also complain that we never linger for long in any of the places Raja lives.  We don’t get to bond much with many the humans he encounters, either.  But this is, I suspect, by Hambleton’s design.  Early on, Raja’s mother tells him to never get too attached to humans because you never know what might happen. Raja tries to take this advice to heart, but he can’t help like some of his humans, even if he doesn’t stay with them long.  Luckily for him, in the small-world way of the horse community, he does run into some of his favorite people and horses again by the end of the story.

It turns out the novel is a closer—it gets better and better as it goes along.  Hambleton’s writing is at its most vivid when she describes the Raja’s first few outings as a steeplechaser.  Since my only experience with steeplechase consists of being the only person glued to the telly because horses were on TV in a London pub, I found the steeplechasing scenes engrossing.  It was also a relief to completely trust the horse details throughout the novel—there’s not one instance where I was taken out of the story because someone called a bridle a halter or a baby horse a colt.  Hambleton clearly knows horses and the disciplines about which she writes.

This novel is perfect for your Horse IndoctriNation needs.  It will serve to introduce the 8-12 year old(s) in your life to the world of horses, while providing a new perspective on the Thoroughbred racing.  Hambleton is honest about the fate of a horse who no longer wins, providing enough details to make any kid with a sense of justice become interested in animal welfare, but she doesn’t overdo it.

The book also includes a glossary (yes!), cute illustrations, AND there’s a website (www.rajaracehorse.com) where interested (obsessed?) readers can learn more about the real-live horses who inspired the characters in the novel.  Oh, and word on the street is that Raja: Story of a Racehorse has been winning its own awards (an IPPY Bronze Medal for Juvenile Fiction and a finalist for an IBPA Ben Franklin Award for Young Adult Fiction), so you don’t have to just take my word for it that this is a book that kids will enjoy.

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