Friday, April 10, 2015

National Velvet, by Enid Bagnold - Centennial Book Selection for April

My grandpa had several acres of land where he grazed cattle and a pony. The pony didn't belong to grandpa, but to a friend of his who needed a place to keep it temporarily. Whenever we would visit, he'd call that pony out of the pasture and give us rides around the yard. I would pretend that pony was mine and even told friends back home that I had a little pony in the mountains. I guess many girls dream about horses. I grew up in rural east Virginia and several friends of mine actually had horses, but most of us just collected and played with model horses. I read Black Beauty, several times over, and remember badly wanting a horse of my own. I would work on all sorts of plans hoping, to make it possible. But no matter how many babysitting jobs I had, there would never be enough money to cover the cost of boarding a horse.
In Enid Bagnold's book, National Velvet, the main character is a horse-crazy fourteen year-old girl named Velvet. Velvet spends her days dreaming of horses and collects paper cut-out horses in a shell box that she uses for make-believe stories and play. Having never read this book growing up, I had assumed the horse in the story was named Velvet. Actually the horse's name is Pie because of it's piebald markings. The horse is a nuisance to its owner because it is constantly jumping fences and running wild through town. When Pie's owner finally has enough of repeatedly wrangling his escaped horse, he puts it up for a community raffle and Velvet is the lucky winner! I could sympathize with Velvet when her father, concerned about the cost and upkeep of a horse, is not too pleased with the idea of having such a horse. Velvet has a plan though, and with her mother's support she enlists Mi, an initiate in her father's butcher shop, to help her train the horse for the Grand National. In this race, horses and riders have to contend with many different types of fences and lots of other horses trying to jump them at the same time. Velvet is resolute in her belief that Pie can win the National and after months of training this proves true when she rides Pie to victory.

National Velvet, a 1935 publication, takes place in Liverpool, England. Since Enid Bagnold was a Brit, its dialogue and dialect are very authentic. It took a little time to accustom myself to the characters' language, but soon became fully immersed in the story. Anticipating that my condensed summary doesn't ruin things for those who haven't read it yet, I have to elaborate on the element of conflict … what makes a simple story into a page-turner. In Velvet's day, there is no equal opportunity for female jockeys. In fact, female jockeys were not allowed, so of course Velvet has to enter the race posing as a male. I like the way Bagnold creates strong roles for women with her characters. It seems that Velvet has inherited spunk and determination from her mother, who is known for being the first woman to ever swim the English Channel. Along with her success as an English novelist, Bagnold was a mother of four children. I find it interesting that in this novel, Velvet had three sisters and a little brother. It seems likely that this large and lively fictional family may have reflected her real-life family in many ways.
Bagnold's prose is also very beautiful and connected me fully with each character's emotions. Here is a small excerpt that shows what Velvet and her co-hort Mi were experiencing when they considered, then decided, who (Velvet) would ride Pie in the National. “There are evenings, full of oxygen and soft air, evenings after rain (and triumph) when mist curls out of the mind, when reason is asleep, stretched out on a low beach at the bottom of the heart, when something sings like a cock at dawn, a long-drawn, wild note.”
I recommend this story to all ages, whether or not you favor horses over other animals. It is an inspiring family story that highlights the bond of love and trust between 'man and beast.' The West Jefferson Centennial Book Club will meet at 6:00 p.m. in Hotel Tavern on April 28 to discuss National Velvet. Copies of the book are available for check-out at the library. A film, based on the novel, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney, will be shown in the library at 2:00 p.m. on May 2.

1 comment:

  1. Actually most of the story takes place in a village on the south coast of England. Only the race itself happens in Liverpool.