Thursday, November 12, 2009

Sabre, the Horse from the Sea by Kathleen Herald

I'm at 20,500 words on my NaNoWriMo novel, just barely ahead of where I should be. Therefore, I offer you a review of another book that I've read many times.

My copy of Kathleen Herald's Sabre, the Horse from the Sea was published in 1963 (reprinted from its original 1947 publication date) by Acorn Books, an imprint of Macmillan, although I'm pretty sure Acorn Books is no more. Five seconds on Google did not enlighten me. Fifteen seconds on Google, though, taught me--to my shock and delight--that Kathleen Herald is the same writer as K.M. Peyton, whose book Who, Sir? Me, Sir? is also one of my favorite horse stories ever.

In fact, I'm so shocked and delighted that I don't know if I can do justice to this review without devolving into fangirl squee and rushing off to see how many of Herald/Peyton's books are still in print so I can order them. Sabre is long out of print, unfortunately, but used copies are available.

Sabre is set in Britain during WWII. Twelve-year-old Liza Greenway is sent from London to live with her aunt and uncle in the country, but she's miserable there. Then she finds a gray Thoroughbred stallion wandering along the edge of the ocean; she captures him and takes him to a local farm until the owners can be found.

Except that Liza wants to keep the horse for herself. As the months pass and the owners don't show, Liza starts to think of the horse as hers. She names him Sabre and teaches herself to ride, and when the owners do finally show up, Liza misleads them into thinking the horse ran off ages ago.

That's just the set-up. The plot takes many surprising twists and is a completely satisfying story just on that level. What I love, though, is the way Liza grows from a sullen, unhappy twelve-year-old to a quietly happy, more open teenager over the course of the book. The change is subtle, elegantly written, and believable. Liza feels like a real person; the other characters all feel like real people too. Best of all, the horse Sabre (and later the filly Scimitar) behave like real horses.

The writing is spare, understated, and very British. It's not a book about WWII--that's just the backdrop--but it taught me more about life in Britain during the war than any other book I've read or any movie I've ever seen. And the race at the end of the first part of the book was a huge influence on my writing when I was a kid. It taught me all I know about action verbs. That Herald/Peyton wrote this book when she was eighteen floors me--I hadn't known that until today. No wonder I love what few of her later books I've been able to find.


Lertulo said...

I have a hard time seeing the falling-in-love-with-a-horse theme as being attractive to anyone male or above the age of 15. Do you see this as still a good read for people who don't go "squee" frequently?

K.C. Shaw said...

Absolutely! The best horse stories have horses as important plot elements but human relationships as the central plot. You couldn't take the horses out of this story without it collapsing, but the main character's growth has more to do with her relationships with her aunt and cousin and other people than it does to the horses.