1867: A Nod to Horses
by A.B. Westrick
Middle grade fiction, Ages 10 and up
It’s been my pleasure to know A.B. Westrick for several years. We’ve worked together in school-based and community settings on many projects related to reading and writing. She is a stickler for details and likes to get things right.
Her middle-grade debut novel, Brotherhood, is a precise and compelling story about a community undergoing rapid-fire change. Set in Richmond, Virginia, just two years after the end of the Civil War, Brotherhood authentically depicts a boy’s struggle to change his heart and his ways.
It’s a dangerous venture to lead a double life, as the main character, Shad Weaver quickly finds out. He runs with the KKK at night and secretly takes reading lessons from a young black teacher by day. Shad sees and participates in things that he shouldn’t. A burden of shame and secrecy binds Shad up with fear and confusion. Yet, Shad does realize all that is at stake. People’s lives are in danger and only Shad can help, but he will have to speak the truth.
One of the aspects of this book that most interested me is how the author uses horses to reveal emotions, surface memories, and increase tension in the storyline. Who has horses and who doesn’t? How the memory of the family horse evokes the presence of Daddy. How the sound of horse hooves approaching the house conveys friend or foe to the main character.
So, I invited the fabulous A.B. Westrick to share something of how horses figure into Brotherhood!
Author A.B. Westrick on Brotherhood
When Gigi asked me to write a guest-post for this blog, I hesitated because I don’t know a lot about horses. The first time I rode one, I trembled. She was such a big animal. And so strong. And I was scared. I hadn’t been around horses much. The instructor told me and the other newbies, “Don’t let your horse feel your fear!” But how were we supposed to fake it? The horses could tell we were novices, and I’m pretty sure they were laughing at us. Or rolling their enormous brown eyes. No matter how much the instructor taught us about getting our horses to do what we wanted them to do, I gotta tell you—on that particular day, my horse did exactly what she wanted.
“Don’t let her linger in the clover. Keep her moving,” shouted the instructor. And the way I remember it, when I urged my horse forward, she seemed almost to… smile. Maybe even shrug. Then she swallowed and took another bite.
I was a teenager then, and my thigh muscles were super sore the next day. Now I’m an author, and in my debut novel Brotherhood, my protagonist pines for the day he’ll save enough to get himself a horse. I set the story in 1867 Richmond, Virginia. Fourteen year-old Shad recalls the day he watched Daddy ride off on Mindy-girl to join the Confederate Army. Shad “watched him wave good-bye, waving his whole arm against a white-cloud sky, brushing so hard that for a moment Shad believed he’d brush the war away.” But the war rages on, and Daddy and Mindy-girl never make it home.
The sheriff in Brotherhood manages to acquire a horse after the war, and at first, when I imagined what he and his horse might have looked like, I pictured mounted police officers. But that wasn’t the right picture. Today’s equestrians ride beautiful, well-fed, well-groomed animals, nothing like the scruffy horse my scruffy sheriff might have ridden.
Back in the 1800s, not owning a horse meant walking a lot. A whole lot. These days in the United States, we take cars for granted and ride horses for love. On some farms, horses still plow the fields and their droppings enrich the soil, but most farmers have replaced them with machines and processed fertilizer. You can write a contemporary novel and never mention a horse, but it’s pretty hard to write historical fiction without a nod to these amazing animals.
So it’s with gratitude to Gigi that I find myself thinking a lot about the horses in my book. Not only do they help characters get where they need to go, but owning one says something about a person’s place in the world. When Shad longs for enough money to get himself a horse, what he really wants is for Daddy to look down on him from heaven and smile.
I loved reading Chancey of the Maury River, and as I write this post just before the release of Macadoo of the Maury River, I look forward to reading that one, too. There’s so much to love about a horse! The title of this blog says it all. Thank you, Gigi, for inviting me to contribute!