CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 16 . . . . December 16, 2011
A century ago, much of the Antarctic remained as some of the last few remaining unexplored places on earth. Certainly, no one had ever reached the South Pole. Who could imagine that in setting out on the race to the South Pole, someone would choose to take ponies with him? Captain Robert Falcon Scott—Scott of the Antarctic—took with him on his quest to reach the bottom of the earth a herd of Manchurian ponies that, together with the sledge dogs, would haul much of the equipment and provisions that the Antarctic explorers would need. Iain Lawrence’s new novel, The Winter Pony, tells this story, and it does so from the first person (first horse?) perspective of one of the ponies, Jimmy Pigg.
Captain Scott and his team are in a race against the Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, and all must work tirelessly and heroically or risk failure. Much of The Winter Pony is about the harshness of the Antarctic environment and the dangers endured by the ponies and the exploration team. Whether it is the danger of falling through cracks and crevices in the ice, ravenous killer whales, freezing in the cold, or being trapped on floes of melting sea ice, Death waits at every turn. For all involved, but perhaps even more so for the ponies than the men, there is also the ever-present danger of the Unknown—knowing not what they are getting into in this foreign, hostile place. As Jimmy Pigg tells it, the ponies battle courageously alongside their kind and determined human companions. ”The never-ending gleam of white snow and white sky burned my eyes badly. Snow covered my nose when I walked. It covered my ears and my forelocks, and I had to snort it away from my nostrils. It covered my blanket when I rested. Then it melted. Then it froze, and I felt like a block of ice.” And elsewhere, “Cold and wet and frozen. I felt more dead than alive.”
Lawrence is a skilful, evocative writer, and his careful word choices paint for the reader a picture of toil and struggle against insurmountable odds. The longer The Winter Pony goes, the more powerful and moving the story becomes, and one cannot help but cheer for the gallant band of animals and explorers, hoping for them to achieve success.
It is interesting to read Scott’s story from the perspective of one of the ponies. Lawrence set himself a difficult task though. Occasionally, I wondered if Lawrence was attributing too many “human” sentiments to his animal narrator. For instance, at one point, the men must leave the ponies behind on an ice floe. Jimmy Pigg looks into the eyes of his handler, Patrick Keohane:
Would a pony really think in this way? Perhaps so, but I occasionally had trouble maintaining my willing suspension of disbelief. When they were in their camp, waiting for the right conditions to make the assault on the Pole, the men entertained themselves with a piano included among the camp equipment. “It made me happy to hear the singing,” thinks Jimmy Pigg, “and proud as well, because I was the one who had brought the piano.” I do not know of the thoughts of ponies, and so I cannot say with certainty that Lawrence is in error, but these types of episodes were for me, occasionally a little wide of the mark.
My greatest difficulty reading the book, however, was the number of characters and trying to keep them all straight—even as basically as remembering which ones were people and which ones were ponies. Because the story is told from the perspective of one of the ponies, I found myself confused. The pony “referred to” some of the people some by their title and surname, as in Captain Scott or Mr. Oates. Others were referred to by their first name, as in Patrick. Still others were referred to by their title and first name, as in Mr. Teddy (who was Teddy Evans). Other humans’ names and nicknames—such as Birdie, Cherry and Gran—might well have been pony names. This became particularly confusing for me given that some of the ponies’ names seemed to be the names of the humans. I struggled to remember that the likes of Christopher, Victor, Willy, Uncle Bill, and Michael were ponies and not human explorers. Victor was Birdie’s pony and in passages describing Victor and Birdie trudging through the snow together, I was not sure which was which. At the book’s end, I found a “cast of characters”, but this would have been more helpful to me at the front of the book so that I could flip back to it when necessary. As the “cast” is currently presented, I understand its placement at the back because the “characters” are listed by the order of their death. So as not to give away the story, this list could not just be transplanted to the front of the book, but I believe a simple cast of characters designating ponies and people would have been helpful at the front and the details and order of their deaths may still have been included in the back.
Despite these problems, however, this is a wonderful book. It is also one that will inform and educate and have wide appeal. Boys and girls will be amazed and inspired by Lawrence’s depiction of Scott and his team and their struggle to overcome the challenges of the Antarctic.
The Winter Pony is 246 pages in length. At the end of each chapter, there is a short third person narrative providing an overview of events within Scott’s team and with Amundsen’s team as they race to be the first to reach the South Pole. With the early-2012 100-year anniversary of Scott and his companions’ deaths fast approaching, the timing of this publication is ideal. The Winter Pony is a powerful, moving story of courage and indomitable spirit—human and animal—and I recommend it highly.
Gregory Bryan is a professor of children’s literature in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba.
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