I really wanted to like this series. I love the concept—horse stories set in different areas of the world and in different time frames. It's a natural for incorporating geographical and historical lessons while reading an entertaining horse story.
When I read a Kirkus review of the first book, I thought they might have been a little harsh.
The reviewer, in part stated, "Horses are prey animals. They run from danger. They do not jump into rivers, not even if they are the 'bridges of Iceland.'"
I hadn't read Elska yet, and I had owned horses in the past that loved water, so I could definitely picture a horse jumping into a river. I was a little skeptical of the review and still had high hopes for the series. But after reading that first book, I understood the reviewer's point. The horse deliberately jumps into the water to save the main character from drowning. I could possibly see a good dog doing that, but a horse? Never.
The Horse Diaries books are extremely short. Given the target age, that may be unavoidable, but it definitely makes it challenging to develop much of a storyline. Other than the almost nonexistent plot and the unbelievability of the Icelandic horse's behavior, I didn't find too much unacceptable in the book and decided I would forgive that scene and read on in the series.
After reading this second book, I reluctantly decided I could not recommend this series.
The book is set in Vermont in 1853. The main character, Katie, looks to be about ten or eleven years old. The family raises a Morgan colt she names Bell's Star.
One day, Katie hears her mother calling her, but deliberately runs off on Star to ride to the river where she finds a young slave girl clinging to branches in the water, about to be swept downriver. Katie rescues the girl, Eliza, lies to her father, Hiram, and hides Eliza in the barn.
Slave catchers arrive the next day looking for the slaves. Katie is horrified when her father is seemingly tempted by the $100 reward for information leading to the runaway slaves. "The new law says that no one can help runaways. That includes fathers and their meddling daughters."
Her father also says the schoolteacher, Miss Biddle, is foolish when it's rumored she has helped runaways get to Canada.
That night, Katie bridles the two horses, Star and his mother, Bell, to secretly take Eliza to the schoolteacher. Star knows the slave catchers are still in the area. Before Katie can mount him, the horse runs off to divert the slave catcher's attention. (Smart horse!)
Both girls ride Bell, bareback, to Miss Biddle's where Star later joins them. When the slave catchers approach, Katie puts Eliza on Star, and the horse takes off with her to outrun the slave catchers to Canada. Eliza had never ridden horses before meeting Katie, yet she's able to stay on Star at a mad gallop, bareback.
"My legs stretched long and high as I bounded over ledges and streams and through the thick forest. How long did I gallop? How long did Eliza clutch my mane with all her might?"
Star delivers Eliza to her mother and father at a camp in Canada (I guess because Canada is such a small place, the horse is able to go directly to the spot where her parents are camped.) Star learns what it means to be truly free, and he returns to his farm and Katie.
After fully reading the first two books and skimming books three to ten, I have no desire to read the entire series. Here are some brief observations on some of the books.
Horse Diaries #3: Koda
Quarter Horse, Oregon Trail
A young girl, Jasmine, gets lost on the prairie during her family's westward journey. The horse, Koda, finds her lying in a heap nearly dying of thirst. "Her mouth and lips were cracked and swollen."
Somehow, the weak little girl gets on the Quarter Horse, bareback. As an athletic teen, I could get on most horses bareback, but I don't think any of my daughters ever could. There's simply no way this young girl got on the horse in her weakened state and remained on at a gallop. Koda takes Jasmine back to the wagon train which seems to be some distance away.
"I broke into a smooth trot, then a gallop, fast but steady…steady…And so on into the night we went, Jasmine clinging to my mane, her head now slumped against my neck."
Horse Diaries #4: Maestoso Petra
Lipizzaner stallion, WWII Europe
This one borrows a scene from National Velvet. Toward the end of the book, when a boy/man named Hans sprains his ankle and can't ride Petra in a performance, a girl named Liesl cuts her hair, puts Hans' uniform on, and rides in his place.
Horse Diaries #5: Golden Sun
Appaloosa, Oregon 1790
A rattlesnake speaks to a Native American boy. Hmm, the only time I recall a snake speaking to a human, it caused a whole lot of trouble for everyone.
"You are a healer, and I will be your guide. I grant you the power to draw the poison of sickness from human or animal."
The snake also speaks to the horse, Golden Sun. "Horse, you are a healer, too."
Horse Diaries #6: Yatimah
Arabian, 9th century Bedouin culture
Yatimah is being trained as a war horse to raid rival tribes and steal their animals, including horses. Success at this is a source of pride for the bedouin raiders.
Horse Diaries #7: Risky Chance
Thoroughbred race horse, 1935
Injured in a race, Risky Chance is called "washed up" and finds himself in a claiming race and with a new owner.
Horse Diaries #8: Black Cloud
Mustang, Nevada 1950
This book is horrible. I found it disturbing; I can't imagine a young, horse-loving kid reading it.
Wolves attack Black Cloud as a foal. "He sank his teeth into the soft part of my belly. ... The critter's jaws were clamped on to my belly, and he hung there, swinging back and forth as I moved. ... I tried shaking him off, but his jaws were clamped down hard, and pain surged into my gut. Then another critter set upon me from behind! He snapped his jaws down on my rear leg. The pain was too much. I collapsed, my knees buckling beneath me." (That seems as if it would have been enough to kill a foal, but he is rescued by his mother who kills several of the wolves.)
"I turned and looked back once. The rest of those critters had returned and were feasting on their dead kin!" (Wow! Was that necessary? I'm no wolf expert, but that seems odd to me, perhaps if they were from different packs, but within the same pack??)
The Mustangs are rounded up by airplane and trapped in a pen. When Black Cloud finds his mother.
"She was dark with blood! It poured from both of her front legs and from her neck. Her flesh hung in strips, her bones showing underneath." (from running into barbed wire, she dies) "I lay beside Mama all night, nuzzling close to her. She was cold, and I tried my best to warm her. But in the morning, she was still dead."
A young girl, Annie, is determined to save Black Cloud. She goes into the pen and sits down beside the wild Mustang. (Incredibly stupid! Trust me, this only happens safely in books.)
All the other horses are killed by the men who had rounded them up, but Annie saves Black Cloud.
The ending is perplexing. After being somewhat tamed by Annie, she opens the corral gate and gives Black Cloud the chance to join a wild herd of horses running past their ranch. "For a very long time, I stood by that open gate. A very long time. And then I made my decision."
What was Black Cloud's decision? I guess we'll never know. That's how the book ends.
Horse Diaries #9: Tennessee Rose
Tennessee Walking Horse, Alabama 1856 and Civil War
Rose grows up on a Southern plantation with a slave boy, Levi, as his groom. The owner, Captain Randall, takes his horse and groom to war.
"It was horrible, young boys clutching their wounds and falling, to be trampled by the onrushing troops."
It also tells of the death of Captain Randall.
Horse Diaries #10: Darcy
Connemara Pony, Ireland 1917
Well, in the first chapter, another foal, a bit older than Darcy, is attacked and killed by eagles. There doesn't seem to be any point to this tragic scene.
"Then the second eagle dove. Its talons pierced Ciara's neck and held fast, its wings beating against the wind. Ciara lost her balance and fell with it over the ledge. ... I could not bear to look over the edge and see her body on the rocks. From below, I heard the muffled squabble of the two eagles fighting over their prey."
I don't have physical copies of the last six Horse Diaries books, so I can't give any specifics on them.
Horse Diaries #11 Jingle Bells
Clydesdale, Wisconsin 1915
Horse Diaries #12 Luna
Friesian, The Netherlands, 1855
Horse Diaries #13 Cinders
Percheron fire horse, Illinois 1860s
Horse Diaries #14 Calvino
Andalusian, Spain 1570s
Horse Diaries #15 Lily
Welsh Pony, Wales 1939
Horse Diaries #16 Penny
Paint, California 1850