Tue 10 May 2016
I’ve missed a couple of weeks. We’ve had a family emergency, with my younger daughter in the hospital for treatment of a chronic condition. That ground everything to a halt and, when she finally came home, it meant a huge backlog of writing. The good news is that the daughter is getting better every day.
The time spent with her in the hospital also provided a writing epiphany, especially related to my favorite children’s author, Walter Farley. More on that below.
To cope with all this, I resorted to tea. Strong tea. Wake you up, tea. I drank a special morning blend of black orange pekoe tea. Basic black teas can be the hardest tea to get right. Too strong and they’re harsh and nasty (hello, Lipton), too weak and it’s like drinking hot water with a hint of flavor. This blend is perfect for me, provided I use one of my extra large mugs, two teaspoons of the loose tea, and steep for four minutes. Perfect.
Onto Walter Farley and one of my favorite books as a child: The Black Stallion and the Girl.
When we fall in love with books as children, we fall hard, and those stories and the people who wrote them become beloved in a way that’s everlasting.
Sometimes when revisiting our favorite stories as adults, we can be disappointed. I still see what I loved in my favorites but, as an adult, Tarzan‘s pulp adventures contain racist implications are undeniable. Robert Heinlein’s fast-paced galactic adventures reveal skewed views on women and sex.
But sometimes authors and books exceed our childhood memories and that’s the case with Farley and The Black Stallion and the Girl. Even more, sometimes behind a beloved story is another story, a true story that’s tragic and beautiful.
When my daughter was in the hospital, she wanted to read and disappear in her books. I’d brought her my favorite Black Stallion books, including this one, so I picked it off the pile while she read something else. The words quickly merged with my memories of childhood, and I was eight years old again, thrilled that a girl could do everything that the hero of the story, Alec Ramsey, could do. Pam, the girl of the title, did what she loved to do, despite everyone telling her that she couldn’t or shouldn’t do it. She knew differently and her quiet confidence and her kindness won them over.
There are debates in the book over what women should and could do and here Walter Farley is on the right side of history, allowing Alec to be on Pam’s side and allowing that women could be whatever they wanted and that Pam had just as much a right to love horses and work with them as anyone else.
This book was written in 1971, even before Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs. Farley was ahead of his time and his story back then was an inspiration to me.
However, I also remembered a later book, The Black Stallion Legend, written in 1983, where Pam dies off-screen in a car crash in Europe and that sent Alec into a dream-like tailspin. It was an odd book, full of raw grief. I wasn’t ready for it, and I put the entire series aside for other books.
What I didn’t know then was that Pam was based on Walter Farley’s own daughter, Pam, who died at the age of 20 in 1968 in a car crash in Europe.
The Black Stallion and the Girl is a love letter from Farley to his daughter.
Pam in the book is kind and warm and smart and funny and determined. She’s human, of course, and not perfect, though Walter Farley can be forgiven if perhaps she’s a bit idealized. (Alec, too, is idealized, as is the case with many lead characters in children’s books.) At the end of the story, Pam leaves to pursue her dreams, promising to stay in touch with Alec.
The book ends with this tribute:
A soft breeze swept his face, and his eyes turned to the star-lit heavens. Whenever he wasn’t with her, her fingers would be the wind and the wind her fingers, and all space would be the smile of her.
I can’t imagine what it took for Farley to write those words, only three years after his daughter’s untimely death. I’m in awe of the gift that allowed him to share his daughter with the world and reach out to me, someone he would never know, and inspire me in turn.
Stories matter. And storytellers matter. I’m glad that Pam is still out there, immortal, and that her father left the world such a gift.