Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Reading Notes: The Silver Brumby

I've always maintained that revisiting the books you loved as a child, in the company of your own children, and watching a new generation latch onto them, is one of the purest joys of parenthood. From the Magic Faraway Tree to the Velveteen Rabbit, the Famous Five to Trixie Belden, Narnia to Anne of Green Gables, Roald Dahl to ES Nesbitt, I've enjoyed myself hugely reading aloud to my two big girls. It's been such a delight to see them engage with these books and worlds that meant (still mean) so much to me.

One series I was anticipating sharing with them from way back was Elyne Mitchell's wonderful Silver Brumby books. To say that I loved these books as a 9 year old girl would be a massive understatement. I was completely obsessed with them, from about 9 until at least 12. I owned them all (my copies subsequently got given away - grrr!) and I must have read each one at least five or six times. I remember I dropped one in the bath and then spent two hours patiently drying it out with a hairdryer rather than risk losing it. (It was never quite right again, but that didn't stop me reading it!)

So when I saw a special centenary edition on sale, incorporating 4 of the books with an autobiographical sketch of Mitchell, I bought it without delay to read to my girls.

The Silver Brumby books, written by Mitchell for her "horsey" daughter, Indi, are not quite your average pony books. (There are so many - so VERY many - pony books around). These books are the stories of the various adventures of a brumby herd, led by its silver stallion, Thowra, named for the wild wind by his creamy mother, Bel Bel. Humans appear in the books - particularly in the second book, Silver Brumby's Daughter, about the mare Kunama - but they are not the horses' friends or riders; they are their enemies, sources of fear and misery. The stories are centred on the horses as characters and on the land they live in - the high country of the Australian Alps - in all its seasons and moods.

There are many reasons that I loved the Silver Brumby books and am loving them again now, as I'm reading them to my 9 and 7 year olds.

I loved Mitchell's deeply loving, lyrical evocation of landscape. There are lots of Australian books for children, of course there are; but growing up, only two series that I loved impressed themselves on me as having a uniquely Australian tang - this one and Mary Grant Bruce's Billabong books. In the Silver Brumby books, I read animals and trees and plants and ground I had seen and could see, read of scents I was familiar with, heard words and language that resonated. I have never been to Mount Kosciusko, but reading these books connected me to that part of the country of my birth in a powerful way.

I loved the characters. Oh, how I loved the characters. Bel Bel, Yarraman, Mirri, The Brolga, Storm, Arrow, Boon Boon, Golden, Lightning, Wirramirra, and of course main characters Thowra, Kunama, Tambo, Baringa, Dawn and Moon, live and breathe on the page. To some extent, Mitchell anthropomorphises them - they speak to each other in words, after all - but one of the great triumphs of these books is that the brumbies remain, essentially, horses, with horses' concerns, imperatives and behaviours. These are no ponies dressed in waistcoats sitting down to a tea party; they are wild animals, strong, beautiful, often brutal. In that regard, the books evoke some of the same success of Watership Down, another book that gifts its animal protagonists with speech and sentience without turning them into humans in animal skins.

I loved the plotting. Boy, does Mitchell know how to construct a moment of narrative suspense! None of these novels are all that long, but the amount of nail-biting moments that they pack in are admirable. The plot is always internally consistent and tightly drawn, and even as a child, I recognised the skill in that (as an adult who tries to write myself, I admire it even more!)

Right now, though, the main reason I am loving the Silver Brumby books? The rapt look on both my big girls' faces as I read, and the excitement we all share as we open the book to dive into the world of the Cascades again.

This is post 14 in NaBloPoMo. 14 down, 16 to go!

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