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Pre-existing conditions in Dancer and Abby Malone

Back in January, I took a look at Sailor Girl and Little Comrades in the first instalment of the PQL review series. This month I’m going to be taking a bit of a different approach; this time around I’ll be looking at two novels written by Shelley Peterson: Dancer and Abby Malone. While Lewis, Olson, and Peterson’s books all have young female protagonists, Peterson’s books differ in that they are written for young women as well. Sailor Girl and Little Comrades provide excellent insights into the process of growing up and the difficulty of distinguishing yourself as a woman, but Dancer and Abby Malone are actually a part of that process. Peterson’s books deal with myriad social issues of interest to young women and, like most young adult fiction, provide them with guidance and solutions.

But Peterson’s books require more introduction than that. Published in 1996 and 1999, respectively, Dancer and Abby Malone remain popular today and are still two of the Porcupine’s Quill’s best-selling novels. Whatever they’re telling young women, it’s obviously working.

horse dingbat

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I stared reading Peterson’s first book, Dancer, around the same time I started watching CBC’s popular television series, Heartland. Based on the books by Lauren Brooke, Heartland tells the story of Amy Fleming, a young girl who has an incredible aptitude for healing problem horses. When her mother dies in a terrible car accident working with horses helps Amy come to terms with her grief. When I started reading Dancer I noticed a few important similarities between the stories, and when I got onto Peterson’s second novel, Abby Malone, my opinion was solidified. Heartland, Dancer, Abby Malone—these are all horse books, and horse books have certain pre-existing conditions that tend to recur in a variety of ways within the genre. Which isn’t to say that horse books are constructed from a strict formula, but rather to say that these books all have something in common: they are written for young women. There’s a reason why I read horse books voraciously when I was a child and had an extensive collection of Grand Champions. There’s a reason why little girls in sitcoms the world over always want a pony (preferably pink) for their birthdays. These books create a world that appeals to young women and specifically address issues that concern them. It’s only natural that there would be some overlap across the genre.

But the question is, what issues are important to young women, and how do horse books help? So let’s take a look at what these books have in common and why it matters.

Errant fathers. In both Dancer and Abby Malone, the young heroine’s father is absent. In Dancer, Mousie’s father dies of cancer before the novel opens, and in Abby Malone, Abby’s dad has been wrongfully accused of embezzlement and locked away in a penitentiary in Kingston. Though, it isn’t always the father who is dead or missing. In Heartland, Amy’s mother dies in the first book in the series, and in Sundancer, Peterson’s fourth book, the heroine is effectively orphaned when her mother leaves her at Saddle Creek Farm to live with an aunt.

In the cases of Dancer and Abby Malone, the loss of a parent leaves the two heroines feeling abandoned and unsure of themselves. At the beginning of Dancer we learn that Mousie’s father had been “very close to his only child” (Dancer 10). The two were “soul mates, aligned in the spirit and sharing the same sense of fun” (10). Mousie’s reliance on her father for her identity is made explicit in the fact the he gave her the nickname, “Mousie,” which is used instead of her real name, Hilary, throughout the book. Understandably, when Mousie’s father dies, she is “devastated” (10). She loses her will to live and stops eating, attending school, and seeing her friends. It is only the arrival of the precocious horse named Dancer that brings her back to life.

Life similarly falls apart for Abby when her father is taken to jail. Liam Malone may not have given Abby a nickname, but he does give her something else that equally defines who she is: he teaches her how to ride. When Abby is seven years old, he buys her a pony named Goldie and gives her riding lessons. But when Liam is tried and convicted for embezzlement, the legal fees are so great that the little pony must be sold. With the loss of her father comes too a loss of Abby’s ability to ride, something that had come to define her. Once Liam is gone, other things around the house begin to the fall apart too. Abby’s mother descends into alcoholism, leaving Abby to manage their affairs all on her own. As Abby admits when she goes to visit her father in prison, “things would be so much better if he were there” (Abby Malone 33).

Poverty-struck. The immense legal fees that devastate the Malone family in the wake of Liam’s imprisonment lead to another condition of horse books: poverty. The sale of Abby’s pony doesn’t cover their expenses. The family is coming “very close to the end of their savings, after paying [the] huge legal fees” (20). In fact, they are in danger of losing the house. Their house is already fully mortgaged and with Abby’s father gone they have no income. Abby’s mother knows that bank will “have no choice but to decline to approve another loan” (21). They are certain to lose the house; it’s only a matter of time.

Though not quite as desperate, Mousie’s family is similarly hard-up. Mousie and her mother Christine live in a century-old home called Hogscroft. It’s a beautiful property, but the roof badly needs repair, which is “a worry with winter almost upon them” (Dancer 14). There is no money to repair the rotting roof—just as there was no money the season before that. Bills plague Christine throughout the novel, and there is always the distant concern of the huge cost of tuition fees required to send Mousie to university.

The financial problems that trouble the young heroines add another level of uncertainty to their lives. In addition to losing a parent, they stand to lose everything else as well.

Outcasts. Losing their homes is a fairly serious concern for the young women, but money problems cause other issues for the girls by contributing to their status as outcasts at school. Mousie and Abby can’t afford to buy the newest trends, so they are placed at a visible disadvantage from their classmates. Walking home one day Mousie wonders why the girls at school are so mean to her.

“What have clothes got to do with a person’s value, anyway? Maybe I should buy a fashion magazine and dress more … like what? We don’t have the money anyway.” (22)

Though being unable to afford better clothes isn’t the root of Mousie’s problems at school, it definitely doesn’t help. For whatever reason, her peers have decided that Mousie is “uncool” (31). The most popular girl, Sara Preston, has ostracized Mousie and now no one else dares speak to her for fear that they will be ostracized too. It takes a huge toll on Mousie’s confidence, who stops “speaking up in class for fear of being ridiculed” and “joining teams or going to dances for the same reason” (31).

Admittedly, Abby has it much worse. The imprisonment of her father exposes her to malicious gossip and teasing at school. After her father is arrested “kids’ parents [discourage] them from being friendly with her, so they [don’t] want to be seen with her. And some of them [are] downright overjoyed to make her life miserable” (Abby Malone 55). The school bullies, Leo and Larry, call her names in class and pick on her during recess. They pull a particularly nasty prank on her one day when they put red paint on her chair in the classroom. When she comes outside for recess the boys ask:

“‘You sit on something?’
“‘I sat on my chair all morning, Leo. Does that answer your question?’
“‘Well, not quite. Unless there’s blood on your chair.’” (55)

When Abby turns around she can see that the back of her shorts are covered in red poster paint. The results, understandably, are mortifying.

Leo and Larry aren’t the only ones that tease Abby. Pam and Annie, their female equivalents, bestow so-called charity upon the poor girl by giving her all their old clothes at school. As Pam tells her “Annie and I think you need help. Your clothes, Abby!” (53) Though it seems that they are being nice, the two girls are really only trying to get rid of their old clothes so that their mothers will buy them new ones. When Abby goes to her locker that afternoon and sees the huge garbage bag in front of it she thinks, even if they were trying to be charitable, it’s “embarrassing to receive a garbage bag full of clothes at school.” (54) Pam and Annie’s offer is condensing and ultimately degrading. Worst of all, Abby is forced to accept the donation since she has no money to buy new clothes herself.

horse dingbat

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So what does it all mean? Both Mousie and Abby are losers, they have no friends, their clothes are terribly outdated, and they’ve got no money. Why should anyone care? Well, people obviously do care. Girls all over the world care, as demonstrated by the toys, books, movies, and horseback riding lessons they continually convince their parents to buy them. But why do they care so much? The answer is simple. When you read about Mousie and Abby and their unfortunate circumstances, doesn’t all it sound familiar? Doesn’t it all sound like the way you thought about yourself when you were that age? Mousie and Abby’s disadvantages make them more relatable to their readers. Of course, it is few young women who have fathers that get carted off to jail or century-old roofs rotting over their heads, but the feeling is the same. Whatever their circumstances, just about everyone at that age feels like a social outcast. Reading about the similarly disadvantaged is encouraging.

To escape from their circumstances, Mousie and Abby ride horses. For Mousie, riding is a way to fill the void left in her life after the devastating loss of her father. For Abby, riding lets her get away from the ridicule of her classmates and the growing burdens waiting for her at home. And these books provide the same service for their readers. The world of horses is a whole new domain for young women. It’s a place where they can learn a difficult skill, become knowledgeable about tack an equipment, master grooming and horse care. It’s a place where they can make small accomplishments, like cantering for the first time or completing a jump course without any faults. They can begin to feel in control of one small part of their lives—when everything else around them seems so difficult and uncertain.

More than that, it’s a place where they can find incredible loyalty and friendship in a horse. As Mousie herself says that day when she is walking home from school, bemoaning her lot in life. “Well, they can all go jump in the lake. All those kids. I’ve got something nobody else has. I’ve got Dancer” (Dancer 22).

fox hunt dingbat

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Peterson, Shelley. Abby Malone. Erin, Ontario: The Porcupine’s Quill, 1999.

Peterson, Shelley. Dancer. Erin, Ontario: The Porcupine’s Quill, 1996.

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The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.