Horse whispering, Joan de Hamel

Shadrach Girl
Joy Cowley
Puffin, $15.95,
ISBN 0 14 130899 0

On my eighth birthday I was given a book from a French friend of my parents. It was beautifully bound in pink, with gold lettering, a French children’s classic by Mme la Comtesse de Ségur. I even understood the gist of the stories, because of the way in which this kind French lady read them to me, pointing to the pictures and acting the roles. The book was all about the misfortunes of a little girl called Sophie …

Les Malheurs de Sophie would be an apt sub-title for Joy Cowley’s Shadrach series. Sophie is the mother and Joe is the father of a happy, “non sexist” and imaginative family, living in the Marlborough Sounds. In the first book, Bow Down Shadrach, the children, Hannah, Mikey and Sky, are aged eleven, nine and five. Shadrach, the old Clydesdale, is also “family”. One of Sophie’s “misfortunes” triggers the adventures. For “misfortune” you can read “mistake”.

Shadrach is very old and arthritic. It is time he was released from his painful life. You would think that loving parents, with such a close relationship with each other and with their children, would have managed to share and solve this problem in the kindest possible way: “They wouldn’t send Shadrach to a dog meat factory! I just know they wouldn’t!” cries Mikey. “It’d be like sending Great-Grandpa away to be killed.”

But they would and they did. That was the first mistake. Sophie sold Shadrach for $30 – the traditional thirty pieces of silver. Compounding this betrayal, Sophie invents a tremendous lie. Shadrach, she says, is going to a Rest Home for Equestrian Friends, with a beautiful paddock of red clover and centrally heated stables in winter. Predictably, the truth leaks out.

No wonder Hannah carries within her “a strong sense of betrayal”. So do I! Already I am totally in thrall to the story. With difficulty, I remind myself – no mistake, no betrayal, no prize-winning book.

Gladly, Here I Come, starts exactly where Bow Down Shadrach left off. Shadrach is still present in spirit and in the shape of his daughter, Gladly. A distant cousin, Eden, the same age as Mikey, also arrives. He seems set to be another of Sophie’s misfortunes, a sore trial to them all, for different and subtle reasons. He has an “aura” with animals, which means that Gladly prefers his company to Hannah’s. When Eden runs away with Gladly, Sophie maintains, “We all did what we thought was right.”

Poor Sophie! She is no paragon. To err is human and she is all the more real for her mistakes. A policeman suggests that Eden may have disappeared because he cannot separate fact from fiction. Readers of this book may have the same problem. These people, these events, these mistakes, are all “real life” – aren’t they?

Four years divide Gladly, Here I Come from Shadrach Girl. The older children are now teenagers. Gladly still prefers Eden to Hannah, and the old wound is re-opened because a ten kilometre cross-country race for farm horses is planned for Hopai sports day. Who will ride Gladly? By the day of the race, the distance has grown to 32 kilometres. Never mind. I have seldom enjoyed a race so much, especially that final gallop along the beach.

That might well have been the end of the story. Not for an author of Joy Cowley’s calibre. Uneasily, we now watch Joe taking Gladly and the boys home by barge. Sophie drives Hannah in the truck, talking in her “counselling” voice, while Hannah, on edge, asks straight questions about Sophie’s latest “mistake”. Eventually her psychic feelings erupt. Disasters have happened. We are plunged into terrifying adventures in high seas for four exhausting chapters. And even after that, there is a surprise ending to the book. Total catharsis.

Near the beginning of Shadrach Girl, Hannah, aged sixteen, considers the person she had been when Shadrach was alive and the person she is now. “I am not different,” she tells herself. “We grow new layers, like onions. The inside layers, right back to the green beginning, remain exactly the same … They are not the past but in the here and now, inside me.” In this trilogy Shadrach Girl is the newest layer, about the family in the here and now. But for those of us familiar with the green beginnings there is an extra dimension.

From book to book Sophie and Joe mature from over-thirty to nearly-forty. To know all is to forgive all. Their misfortunes and mistakes are redeemed. The children grow in wisdom and in stature. Five-year-old Sky’s jokes and neologisms develop into a genuine facility with words and rhymes. Mikey, who “sometimes felt he was the only person in control”, grows up with more financial acumen than the rest of the family put together. Eden refused to eat eels when he was ten, and four years later is vegetarian. Hannah, who recognised the exact moment when Shadrach died, and sensed that Eden was still alive, can now be trusted when she cries, “Sophie! Something’s happened to Joe and the boys!”

Indeed Hannah has many insights. She is more of a poet than Sky will ever be. In Bow Down Shadrach she “has always known that everything is magic. It is just a matter of looking.” Joy Cowley looks and looks and writes it down. Sometimes she uses a pointilliste technique. Single words, like spots of pure colour, create a total picture. The sports day at Hopai, for instance: “Races, tug-of-war, a gumboot-throwing contest, boats and cars, picnics, grandparents sitting in folding chairs, little kids walking wide with diapers, cameras, sun block, cans of beer, the smoke from barbecues …”

Hannah also knows that “once you have made something up, it becomes real. It starts to live on its own.” So it is with beautiful language. Joy Cowley’s metaphors and similes are alive in my memory: thirteen-year-old Eden, “like a filleted stick insect”; Hannah’s heart-beats, “like a rush of hooves”; tree ferns, “putting out brown hairy fists of new growth”; and Gladly’s muzzle, “as soft as fresh raspberries.” I would read these books – as indeed I read Dickens – for the language alone.

The Shadrach trilogy emerges triumphantly as greater than the sum of its parts. Puffin Books have wisely re-printed Bow Down Shadrach and Gladly, Here I Come at the same time as publishing Shadrach Girl. The cleverly unifying covers by Dexter Fry are beautiful, with horse photographs by Becky Nunes in evocative foxglove colours. A sad fact is that paperbacks at a reasonable price cannot have everything: I pine for Robin Belton’s exquisite illustrations that appeared in the hardback of Bow Down Shadrach. All that remains of these is one small whiskery profile of Shadrach, the size of a postage stamp, at the beginning of each chapter of the first book. There are no illustrations at all in the other two. The quality of the paper and the dissimilar typefaces are also disappointing.

But I have faith in Penguin Books. I believe that one day they will bet on the literary excellence of the Shadrach trilogy and on the good taste of the literate public. They will reproduce these Puffin books in a luxurious “presentation” edition, fully illustrated, with a beautiful foxglove-coloured binding and gold lettering – as handsome and enduring as my ancient pink and gold copy of Les Malheurs de Sophie.


Joan de Hamel is a Dunedin children’s writer.


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Posted in Children, Fiction, Literature, Review, Young adults
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