For weeks students and professors come up to me in the halls,
sidling like horses, and tell me how they once read those stallion books,
loved those Farley racing books, still do. Laurie tells me how she
pretended to be the great Black, pawing and snorting and tossing her
mane, leaping over logs. She paws and tosses her mane a little right in
the hall. The nebulous second prize my paper gets at a conference
doesn't matter, or the endless library hours reading all the grudging
reviews, tracing half a century in print, thumbing through books on
children's lit whose writers believe realism and imagination have a cold
war, and who don't get Walter Farley.
Eventually I read my essay to a good-sized crowd of faculty and
students. I read slowly and savor their attention. My dad, who'll be
bed-ridden within five years and die during my sabbatical, ought to be
there. My mother, who'll invent invisible family for the empty house she
won't leave, should hear this. My sister, who'll have to go bankrupt
before she can break away, should be there too, and my daughter,
whom I took to see the movie when she was about nine. She sat apart
with her girlfriend and didn't see me crying through the races. I read to
all of them. And some of those actually present know the way I do how
sweet and how perilous too it is to love the Black's shadow in ourselves.
What my dad had given up: all hope of farming his own place and
running a kid-pack on it, regular time with his guitar, rifle, fishing rod.
Even his deep dream of cowboy freedom was a husk of boots and
bolos. What my mother had given up: writing, all hope of living a city
life; her deep dream of cultured existence scattered. I'm eleven, trying
to keep my hope alive till I grow up. My own dream lies far below the
surface, like a very small fish.
I am not at all grateful for indoor plumbing, electricity, schools with
more than one room, or cars. I do thank the gods for TV, though. I am
becoming a foreign spy, and endure Ed Sullivan like a horrible sermon
every Sunday night. The rest of the time, I read, not the stone monolith
classroom texts, but the books that are portals to other lives. And
bless Carnegie forever for the public library where I free range feed
until the sheer quantity sometimes alarms even me.
Well, I am overdoing it, not for the last time. I'll ruin my eyes. I'm
addicted to wild stuff and it will rot my brain and I'll never amount to
Ballast, sheer necessary ballast.
Walter Farley, though I didn't know it then, said in interviews that
people should do what they love. Not have day jobs, Good Jobs, and
dream or dabble on weekends, but do exactly what it is they love, all
the time. He wrote the first Black Stallion novel in college, and later on
bought a horse ranch. He manifested.
My parents knew about the magic of manifestation. Had they not
become slightly middle class high school teachers on the G.I. Bill? One
day my dad manifested an old mare in our small, fenced backyard. I'm
sure she would have been gray if they could have managed it, but she
was brown, and she glanced us over once without interest and
masticated a few tufts of grass without hunger. My sister and I looked
at each other in bodily dread. Neither of us had the slightest desire for
an actual horse. We were the horses, and this was our manifested
future looming large and brown and broken in. The horse hung her
head in boredom, or maybe embarrassment at being such a debased
The mare, my mother announced, even though she was old and
reliable, was to be ridden only under my father's supervision. And now
we were to mount up, which was precisely and only what we did. We
were allowed to sit on the horse briefly, then she was led away.
We were not to be taught to care for the horse, or exercise the
horse, or even ride. The horse was lodged in her stall down the canal
the same way we were stalled in our bedrooms, reading madly the
action we craved. A few times I secretly bridled her and took her out
for awhile, but I wanted to ride the big black horse of my life, not the
old brown mare of renounced dreams.
The mare became a horror, prematurely buried down there without
even TV or books. My dad didn't ride her either. She was as unused as
our talents. And meanwhile, I shouldn't think my actual life was going
to include any wild horses. Authors should be ashamed to mislead
children this way. I still can hear the raw emotion in mama's voice,
sitting on our couch waving a volume at me, apparently about to heave
it through the window.
I knew the old mare represented my intended life, plodding,
sacrificed, but secure. Instead she nakedly exposed my parents'
shameful rejection of creative faith. That was the first time I felt clearly
what cowards they were, and grieved over the cowardly choices laid
out for me. In a million years it would not have occurred to my mother
to suggest I write a fantasy of my own. Writing certainly had occurred
to me, but I didn't know how to manifest it. I scribbled secretly, like a
spy, ready to swallow poison to avoid being found out.
After a few weeks I couldn't stand to see the horse, or even think
about her. My mother considered us cured, and eventually the mare
was sold, I hope still to some better life.
The most pivotal moment in The Black Stallion, a turning point that
generates the entire series, occurs when Alec and the Black arrive in
New York and are met by his parents. If you have only seen the movie,
you have not seen this moment. Farley's Alec is seventeen, not a
middle-schooler. During the shipwreck when he and the Black rescued
each other, he came of age, and has returned with his visible daemon,
who is huge, savage, dangerous, and can be managed only by himself.
His parents, glad merely that he's alive, haven't much contemplated
the horse they knew was rescued from the island with him. They're
assuming sort of a nice pony, or a riding horse for weekends. Dad and
Mom are appalled by The Black Stallion, perhaps intuiting that he will
change their lives entirely, but since Farley was in charge of this book,
they do not browbeat Alec until his anima shrinks into an old brown
mare. Against their middle class judgment, they let Alec try it out,
transforming first the life of their neighbor who comes out of retirement
to train the Black, and later themselves. Alec's accountant dad
eventually does the books for the horse empire, and mom housekeeps
at the ranch Alec buys with his winnings.
This part maybe satisfied me even more than coming from behind to
win. How they trusted his horse-sense! The filmmakers who have tried
to manifest this story never trust Alec that much. Caroll Ballard's The
Black Stallion captures the landscapes in gorgeous cinematography and
everyone is strongly cast, even the Black - except for Alex (Alec). Alec
is always where treatments of the book break down into doubts and
fears. The young man of Farley's novels has become a cute kid, losing
the aura of the original. We read them in middle school, duh, but as
sustenance for adolescence already visible on the horizon, for
messages about how to grow up with our hope alive.
The loss of strong young Alec is obvious in the racing scenes, but
most painful in the shifted family relationships. In Farley's book, the
whole adventure happens on the way home from a fabulous visit to his
uncle in India, where Alec has learned to ride horses. In the film he
travels with his father, a rambling gambler.
In a truly tortured moment, dad gives Alex a tiny bronze horse and
tells him about Alexander and Bucephalos, a story perfectly in tune
with Farley in its disobedient triumph over parental cowardice. But the
script twists it so that Alex seems to inherit the adventure from his dad,
who dies in the shipwreck.
The TV series briefly based on the later books twists them in the
other direction with an equal lack of understanding. Alex, now a
teenage rider, is a contemporary Hardy boy, solving adolescent
problems as moral messages, such as becoming bulimic to keep his
weight down for riding. I'm afraid to see the non-Farley prequel made
Unlike the writers and directors, Farley refused to choose between
the separate camps of realistic and imaginative writing. In his later
novels, all the Black's offspring are equally out of ordinary control, even
while the details of training and racing horses are realistically described.
Black Minx bites, acts out, and won't race to win; Satan is so vicious
even Alec can't reach him at first; and Bonfire, the trotting colt, has
been traumatized by an accident and bolts during races.
And then there are the Island Stallion books about Flame, king horse
of a hidden valley in an uncharted landfall. Not content with standing
off an evil horse trainer, Farley wanted to bring Flame to the race world
too. For this he invented a race-loving extra-terrestrial who whisks
horse and rider there and back. Farley's editor wanted to make this
book turn out to be just a dream at the end, but Farley refused. His
books are about not having to choose between what you love and
growing up; they are the complete antidote to penny-pinching Ragged
What I had given up: income greater than I spent in a month of
basics, work regular enough to manifest into a career, anything that
smelled like security. I carried the outlaw identities of half my friends,
and the other half lived further beyond the pale than I did. I only felt
comfortable in bare, shabby spaces, church basements, fourth-floor
walkups. I worked only at jobs I could quit within a couple of months,
always poised to flee while too broke to get far. If I did anything
steadily enough to make money from it, I knew I'd turn into a giant
dung beetle like the rest of my family. My deep dream of a writing life
survived underground in a cave, the walls covered in firelit drawings, or
on another planet where day-glo flowers bloomed in darkness. It took
me years, literally, to get used to the very idea of more school.
For the longest time, in fact, I thought I'd be all right as long as I
didn't teach. Even after feminism gave me bigger context, I still felt like
classes had something to do with my parents' compromised, unhappy
lives and their lack of ambition for me. No help that school itself had
been one of the crushing disappointments of my life. I remember at
five, sitting in the front yard with a book, pretending to study and telling
anyone who came by that I was starting school. I expected a passport
to the larger world I already glimpsed through books, but I found
instead, as most of us do, a world of rules and lines. I stood in them, I
colored inside them, I copied their curves and crosses.
And less help still that I was a teacher's kid. I wasn't so much urged
to achieve in school as destined for it. Other teachers' kids have
confirmed this to me. Whatever we did well was taken for granted, and
whatever we did wrong, anything from a "c" grade to getting in the
slightest trouble at school, weighed sinfully. Career paths too were
unimportant, since I also was destined to teach.
r.kv.r.y. quarterly literary journal
Lost Time by A.B. Emrys