Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Book of the Week: THE HORSE JAR by Linda Benson

I must admit that before I became a middle grade ninja I had never read a book about a girl and her horse. I’m a boy and I’ve mostly stuck with boy books. But The Horse Jar is my third book about a girl and her horse since starting this blog. What’s amazed me is how unique each story has been and if not for my ninja duties, I might have missed all three. I’m beginning to think that a-girl-and-her-horse might be its own genre, like romance. And just as there are endless variations on the boy meets girl stories, or boy meets boy stories for you fellow Rick R. Reed fans, there appear to be endless variations on girl-and-her-horse stories. I’m not complaining, mind you. If you are a writer with a girl-and-her-horse story you think is good enough to be my Book of the Week, please email me at once. This seems to be the place for them.
First, my review: The Horse Jar is at least as good as Linda Benson’s Finding Chance, maybe better. Get to the library or online and acquire this book by any means necessary. It’s a wonderful middle-grade read for kids and adults alike. Its story is a unique parable that will lead to a great discussion for parents and kids and I’m going to save my signed copy so that if Mrs. Ninja and I one day have a daughter, I can give her this book. And no, Mom, if you’re reading this, we are not pregnant. Okie doke, that concludes the review portion of this review. Let’s talk about the book:

Meet Annie Mitchell, The Horse Jar’s protagonist. She’s a young girl who’s not afraid of hard work and knows the value of saving money. I love her already, and she loves horses. No doubt, if Annie were real, she would read and love Whirlwind and Emma’s River by Alison Hart. In fact, she’s read every book on horses at the school library, so I’ll assume she read Alison Hart's books as well.

If I may start discussing craft even earlier than usual, I had a writing professor who used to shout at us that “character = desire.” This is the same professor I told you about who claimed he wrote better sentences than Tom Clancy, and I suspect he was at least partially inebriated when he shouted this. He would have approved of Annie Mitchell, who is all desire. Annie’s one dream is to own a horse. For the first part of this book, it’s all she talks about and all she thinks about.

Fellow writers, take note. Linda Benson knows it isn’t enough to simply tell us that Annie loves horses or to have Annie sit and dream of owning a horse, although she does both of these things. Benson has to show us Annie’s want for a horse through her actions. Real desire involves sacrifice. For the first forty pages of The Horse Jar, every action Annie takes is a step toward her goal of owning a horse. She saves money from gifts and odd jobs in, you guessed it, her horse jar. In the first chapter, the first time we meet Annie, she is checking the classified ads and calling around town to see if anyone has a horse for sale for the amount of money in her jar. And at last she finds Red, an older horse available in her price range.

So Annie buys the horse, hurray for hard work and saving, right? Of course not! Her desire has not truly been tested and no real obstacles have been overcome to achieve her goal. If character = desire, than story = obstacles in the path of attaining that desire. Annie has the money for a horse, but she lives in town and one can’t simply keep a horse in the spare bedroom. A horse needs a pasture, a stable, carrots, horse chow, shoes, a saddle, and all kinds of other stuff, but above all, a horse needs a place to stay. Annie’s father is a teacher and therefore poor, which may or may not be a social comment by Benson. If it isn’t, I’ll make it for her: why the heck are our teachers so poor? We’d need fewer prisons if we took a fraction of the money we throw away on our for-profit prison system guaranteeing plenty of us will be locked up and invested it in our schools. Anywho, Mr. Mitchell can’t afford stable costs and Annie doesn’t have the money.

If I might modify my professor’s formula, I would say character = desire + choice. Faced with this obstacle, what does Annie choose to do? Does she give up on her dream of horse ownership and use her money for college or for a car as her father suggests she do? Not a chance. Annie and her best friend, Chelsi, fix up a vacant lot Annie can rent for only $25 a month with a makeshift stable and fence. Annie vows to do even more odd jobs to pay the rent and buy a saddle and a horse brush and other horse-related paraphernalia. Annie works hard and sacrifices to overcome the obstacle in the path of her desire.

So Annie gets her horse, the end, right? Nope. The story cannot end until Annie faces what Robert McKee calls the crisis decision, that moment in which her desire will be most tested. Everything must be put on the line and our protagonist’s choice in that key moment tells us everything about her and her story. Batman has conflicting desires: he wants to rid Gotham City of crime and remake it in his own image, but he wants to do it without killing anyone ever. Batman beats up criminals and saves the city, but this alone is not a story. Batman must make the crisis decision, his values must be tested in a crucible: he can kill the Joker and save Gotham, but violate his own moral code. Or he can subdue the Joker, knowing the psycho clown is destined to break out of Arkham Asylum once again and kill more Gothamites. Batman’s choice in this pivotal moment defines him as a character. Also, I love Batman.

Major Spoiler ahead. If you keep reading past this point, I am about to ruin a key portion of The Horse Jar for you. Here is the moment of crisis: Annie gets her parents to agree to help her finance the lot and makes the phone call to claim her horse; she just has to pick him up and he’s hers. But just before she can, tragedy strikes. Chelsi has a sweet little dog named Spunky who chases after the girls from the yard, runs into the street, and is hit by a car. Spunky doesn’t die, but he needs surgery Chelsi’s family cannot afford because her father was recently laid off. The surgery only costs a few hundred dollars, but they don’t have the money, and Chelsi’s father instructs the vet to put Spunky to sleep.

Annie has entered the crucible. She has the money to save Spunky, but it will mean giving up her horse. The choice she makes here will define who she is and what The Horse Jar is really about. Her heart’s greatest desire is on the line, but so is her friendship with Chelsi. Chelsi never says as much, but would you stay friends with someone who could have saved your dog and didn’t? An innocent puppy’s life hangs in the balance! This is gripping drama! This is what great fiction is all about. This choice is what takes what might otherwise be a series of events and forms them into a cohesive whole; a story.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.


  1. Robert - thanks so much for the nice review! I love the way you dissect plot points - are you sure that you are not a professor? LOL. And I never dreamed my girl/horse story would ever be mentioned in a discussion about Batman, teacher salaries, and the amount of money spent on prisons. But then, you are the Ninja. Just think, if you and Mrs. Ninja have a horse-crazy girl someday, you will already be adequately prepared in your reading material! So glad you enjoyed THE HORSE JAR!

  2. What a great review/discussion! I have put this book on my to-read list. I write stories and books that sometimes include horses, so it is great to learn about other authors who write in the same "genre." Thanks!


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