Horse Nation book critic Erin McCabe revisits the John Steinbeck classic that scarred her for life as a horse-crazy little girl to see if, as an adult, she can forgive him.
Top photo: Horse-Books-Pony-Stories.com. Editor’s Note: HN does not condone reading while riding bareback backwards without a bridle or helmet.
John Steinbeck is a Big Meanie
I don’t know whose brilliant idea it was (OK, it was probably mine), but somehow, in 5th grade, I ended up reading John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony. Despite what its name might imply The Red Pony is neither about a red pony nor a book for girls who are obsessed with ponies. If you are expecting either of these things when you read this book, you will end up like little 5th grade me: scarred for life and vowing to hate Steinbeck and Never EVER read any of his books for as long as you live.
My superior grudge holding skills enabled me to make it all the way through high school and a literature degree (Future Husband: You’ve never read Steinbeck? You know he won a Pulitzer, right? Me: It wasn’t for The Red Pony, that’s for sure) and two years of teaching high school English without cracking the spine of another Steinbeck novel (English Dept. Chair: The kids really love Of Mice and Men. It’s such a classic. Me: ….).
Except it turns out that John Steinbeck is unavoidable.
I was forced–FORCED, I tell you!– to teach the Grapes of Wrath. Which kind of meant I had to read it. More than once. And a weird thing happened. No, my students didn’t love it. But I kind of started to. I mean, Tom Joad. Who wouldn’t have a crush on him? There’s even a Rage Against The Machine song about him.
Still, I wasn’t ready to forgive Steinbeck. I avoided The Red Pony like a barn with Strangles.
I started with just a nibble. And, dang it, if that first few pages wasn’t good. By good I mean I felt like I was in hands that knew what they were doing. Hands I could trust. The descriptions are strong and the details feel wholly authentic (although sometimes I think Steinbeck is a little too enamored with setting). The writing is crisp and to the point. The dialog sounds like real people might actually have said it. And then there’s this, which is so brilliant I’m putting it in my Facebook Quotes: “…A man on horseback is spiritually as well as physically bigger than a man on foot.”
So I kept going, all the while with a secret dread, because the one thing I remembered about The Red Pony has always been THE RED PONY DIES AT THE END OF THE FIRST CHAPTER!
It turns out you should not trust Steinbeck because, sure enough, the red pony still dies. Not only that, he dies a horrible death from Strangles (Oh no! The pony can’t breathe! Let’s just poke a hole in the pony’s windpipe!). And then! Then! After the pony dies and Jody the protagonist turns into a bird-killing jerk, the story finally gets back around to the whole issue of horses and Jody getting another one. Only that part of the story is god-awful too! (Oh no! Nellie’s foal is cross-wise! Look away while I bash the mare’s brains in and do an emergency c-section!) To make matters worse, after all that, the story ends without another mention of the black colt, if he survived without getting the mare’s colostrum (How? HOW!), if he turned out to be a total weirdo bottle baby, if he lived up to his name (Black Demon?!).
It’s all very traumatizing.
It turns out The Red Pony is not a nove(lla) like 5th grade me always thought, but a set of four linked stories. So, at least that explains why it doesn’t feel like a novel. It also turns out that the stories all deal with anger and death and disappointment. It’s just that if you want all those issues wrapped up inside some good horse stories, this isn’t your book. I mean, I kind of get the feeling Steinbeck doesn’t even like horses very much.
And if that’s the case, maybe I don’t like Steinbeck very much either.