Thursday, March 23, 2023

Bea and the New Deal Horse

Elliott, L.M. Bea and the New Deal Horse
March 28, 2023 by Katherine Tegen Books
E ARC provided by Edelweiss Plus

Bea's family has fallen on very hard times. Her mother has died, and her father, who had a good paying job in a bank, has lost the job and the family's house, and has been traveling around hopping freight trains with Bea and her sister Vivian, trying to work odd jobs. The latest travels have landed them in the hay loft of a barn in Virginia, but when Bea wakes up one morning, her father is gone. He has left a note telling her that he can no longer care for the children, but that the woman who owns the farm, Mrs. Scott, is the mother of their own mother's college roommate, and might be able to take them in. Bea manages to keep the two of them hidden for a week, although the farmhand Ralph conveniently leaves his lunch lying about and seems to know they are there. Things are tough on the Scott farm as well. A reputable horse trainer in the past, Mrs. Scott is now old (i.e., about 60; my age!) and the farm has a lot of debts. She has had to let most of the staff go, with the exception of Ralph and Malachi, a Black man who was mostly blinded in a horrific incident after serving in WWI.  There is a significant drought, so crops are failing. She has also gotten a rambunctious chestnut horse who is proving hard to train. Bea is discovered by Mrs. Scott after she has spent the night walking one of the horses, who has colick, around the farm, thereby saving its life. Mrs. Scott wants to call the police, but Bea quickly makes herself indispensable, helping to pick peaches, accompanying Mrs. Scott to the bank, cleaning the kitchen, and working well with the animals. When the chestnut kicks Ralph, injuring him and requiring him to rest, Bea steps up to fill in the gap, with Vivian helping a little bit. Mrs. Scott has a plan to sell a couple of the horses, but also to train Bea to jump with the chestnut, whom they name Sunup, the New Deal Horse. Bea is a talented rider, and Mrs. Scott a formidable trainer. Bea is reluctant to tell Mrs. Scott about her mother, and wants to gain her respect on her own merits, so works very hard. Mrs. Scott has faced some other difficulties, like the death of two sons in the war, as well as a daughter who isn't speaking to her, so takes to Bea in her own gruff (but spry!) way. Will Bea's horsemanship be able to save the farm and win her and Vivian a home and place in Mrs. Scott's heart?
Strengths: I was not a horse girl (although my cousin was), but this would have been a book I would have saved my babysitting money to buy. It reminded me of books like Gates' Blue Willow, Hunt's No Promises in the Wind, Enright's Thimble Summer or Snyder's The Velvet Room in the best way; classic, but fine tuned so that modern readers can enjoy it. It's helpful that there are notes in the back about the fact that many children were abandoned by their families when they could no longer care for them; my students don't quite believe me when I tell them this. Bea's ability to keep herself and her sister alive by foraging and finding food really speaks to the imagination, and her attitude of wanting to help out and earn her place is one that modern readers would do well to internalize. While she does have one emotional outburst, Bea is resilient instead of being traumatized by her situation. The equestrian information is strong, the setting is appealing, and Mrs. Scott is a fabulous character who is doing everything she can to save her beloved farm, and also rocks a fabulous flapper dress! I think this is my favorite book of 2023 so far. 
Weaknesses: My only objection is that Bea rides English, and my most avid horse book reader right now would like to see some Western riding! This reader worked her way through all of Smiley's Georges and the Jewels series, so she is going to ADORE this one. Did have a few personal grumbly moments when Mrs. Scott was described as spry, but as one of my students said to me "You're not REALLY old, but you are KIND OF old." Mrs. Scott has some similar comments about herself! 
What I really think: Apparently, I read a lot of books about the Great Depression when I was young! I loved Bea as a character so much, and definitely would have had some lovely daydreams where I was either her sister or her friend, and helped her with the household chores. There are enough horse details that equine enthusiasts will enjoy this, but readers of historical fiction like Albus' A Place to Hang the Moon will also enjoy this trip back in time. 

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