On my way to work the other day, I stole a few minutes and detoured to Saxony's barn to be introduced to a new farrier. The cold was raw, sweeping in on an assaulting wind. After talking to the farrier, I went looking for Saxony. She was standing in the turnout shed, shifting her weight on the semi-frozen ground. From behind her I heard the sounds of another horse moving nearby. It reminded me of something:
Then she heard the tump, tump of pit ponies nudging about in the garden to get out of the wind. The hollow sounds of the hoofs meant the ground was frozen.
Those sentences are from The Camerons, by Robert Crichton (cousin of the more famous Michael.) I've read the book dozens of times, pretty much every year since it was published. This is one of two books I would cut off my arm or leg to have written.
Books are so important to me. During my childhood, they offered escape, adventure and hope. Later, as I grew into life, certain books resonated profoundly in me. They were the ones which made me learn something about myself or compelled me to ask a question about life I'd never thought of. Eventually, I assembled what I came to call my "Death Row" library, the few books I would keep with me if I ever ended up -- well, you never know.
It turns out that horses appear in each of these books. None of them are about horses, but they all feature horses at pivotal moments in the story. In every instance, the authors had to have known horses; there isn't a false note in any of their stories.
The Camerons is just a story about a Scottish mining family struggling for a better life a century and a half ago. It contains all the ingredients of a great mini-series: love and hate, tribulation and triumph, sorrow and joy. The writing is straightforward, the characters drawn so clearly I'd know them all if I passed them on the street. I was 14 when I first read The Camerons, and then I read it over and over again because theirs was the family I wanted to belong to.
"Someone left the horse out after the long walk."
"I didn't know."
"No, of course not. It was exhausted, you know. You broke it with your barrels of snails."
He felt a surge of sorrow for the pony.
"Standing all night in the rain."
"Och, I'm sorry. That was bad."
"Very bad," she said. "He died."
That blunt exchange occurs at a moment of crisis in the book. The first time I read it, I was shocked into tears. All these years later, I still read toward this moment with dread, because the death of this horse, a "garron," they called it, also represented the death of another thing. Both were heartbreaking and both were things I could understand, even at 14.