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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

The Black Stallion: Walter Farley's Steady Gaze and Calm Hands

In 1940, an editor told Walter Farley, “Don’t figure on making any money writing children’s books.” Farley disagreed. He wrote The Black Stallion, the first book in his seminal series, when he was in high school, and he published it in 1941 when he was just twenty-six. His subsequent twenty-one Black Stallion and Island Stallion books not only supported him and his family, but they became a family business that is now run by his sons.

I just re-read The Black Stallion because I just joined a Goodreads.com book club where we are reading favorite childhood books. As an adult, as an editor and a writer, I can see that there are a zillion logic holes in the story; the writing is simplistic and there are lots of little word fixes I'd suggest; but the book made my old adult heart thump and race just has hard as when I was eight. I felt, heard, saw, and smelled the Black, and that, in my opinion, is a feat of writing magic.

The protagonist, Alec Ramsey, gets marooned on an island where he befriends the Black, a wild animal of frightening, sometimes violent power. Although he's certainly worried about survival, Alec has a steady, confident quality that I imagine also belonged to Farley. Both character and author seemed to have an absolute knowing that what they were doing was right and valuable. This calm knowing is an undertone to the power in the story that makes it safe for readers of every age to feel what I now would call arousal.

My copy of the book was published before Random House realized the true draw of this power. The jacket copy says "Boys of all ages will thrill to The Black Stallion because any one of them could have been Alec Ramsey." But the copywriter missed the point. The story of a wild horse is mythical and iconic — there is a reason that little girls have crushes on horses. The Black Stallion is an incredibly sexy story for girls because it allows them to feel pure power without a label, without it being called sexual, without it being about a boy or about anything outside ourselves.

The calm gaze, the fire, and the steady hands behind Farley's work remind me of another writer whose work I've been re-reading (and blogging about). It might sound absurd to mention J. D. Salinger in the same sentence as Walter Farley. Salinger's work is full of angst and spiritual struggle and seeking. He's funny and sophisticated where Farley is clumsy and simple, but both men made and imbued their work with a kind of calm confidence that is the sexiest thing I — and many girls of many ages — can imagine. Both had absolute knowing about the rightness of their endeavor and its ultimate success. What a pleasure to re-read these calm men with steady hands!

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