I had to leave the library and hide out in my car this afternoon to keep from making a spectacle of myself. I'd told myself I was a lot tougher than I was back in my Black Beauty days, when I'd become distraught over the fate of poor Ginger every single time, but the closer I came to the end of Rosalind Belben's Our Horses in Egypt, the more fragile I became. By the last page I was sobbing aloud.
Thank goodness for parking lot privacy.
History: Horses were requisitioned from the English countryside as military mounts near the beginning of World War I. Many of these horses died on the ships or during battles or succumbed to illness, poor conditions, starvation, exhaustion. At the end of the war, 22,000 horses who had managed to survive the Palestine campaign were left behind in Egypt by the War Office.
This is a story of a war widow, Griselda Romney, who, learning that her brown hunter Philomena is one of those abandoned horses, determines to bring her home. Her family and her husband's mother think this is nonsense, but obtaining reversionary interest against her expected eventual inheritance gives Griselda enough money to override everyone's voiced opposition. Leaving her young son with her sister, Griselda, her six-year-old daughter Amabel, and Amabel's nurse Nanny embark on a rescue mission.
Belben intersperses Philomena's own story from the day she is led off to Remounts with those of Griselda, Amabel and Nanny (and occasionally, the disapproving chorus back at home). The reader experiences crowded ship conditions, grueling treks through the desert and military battles and their aftermaths from Philomena's perspective:
Her ears ached. She had her head down and her breath had stopped. Her ribs slowly swelled. She was trembling: her skin and flesh shook in great rivulets of fear. In front of her Corky was lying on his side, his head was nodding; as though he'd been dozing in a meadow. The chestnut was between them, and was dead. Philomena's rein vanished beneath the chestnut. She jerked her head up, but nothing gave. Eight other horses were down. A ninth was down but, dazed, with forelegs that were stumps. Philomena blinked.
Horrible, horrible stuff that Belben keeps a tight rein on so that it's bearable to read.
And Belben's dialogue is a joy. Her human characters converse with one another without bothering to explain themselves to the reader--it takes some work at first to follow the unspoken transitions of thought, but on a second read, it's all delightfully clear.
This one's highly recommended.