Monday, February 27, 2012

Cowboys in the Ghetto

Last night I finished a book I had really been looking forward to reading: Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri.

Of course, as a horse lover, I'll read anything with a horse in it, but what had really appealed to me was that the setting was unusual - inner city cowboys keeping horses in an urban environment - so that kids who have never actually seen a prairie might get the feel of horses, and how to live by The Cowboy Way.

Things I Liked: 

I liked this book on many levels.

I loved the story of young Coltrane, who gets dumped off to live with his dad, Harper, who he has never met.

I loved the dialogue of the street kids, and how Coltrane slowly warms up to his dad.

I loved how he responded to one horse in particular who he names Boo, and how the horse brings out feelings of sensitivity in him. This part rings true, because all horse people understand how "the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man" or a woman, or most especially a young punk kid with major problems in life.

I loved, loved the illustrations by Jesse Joshua Watson, and I wish there were more of them. They perfectly depicted the feelings of the novel and the actual "scenes," and put us right in the thick of the story.

Things that bothered Me:

Okay, at the risk of sounding petty - I am a horse woman, and there were certain things that just, well, bugged me because they weren't correct.

First off, one of the major elements in the story is that these horses, kept in decrepit corral and stalls (which the city is trying to shut down) are mostly rescued race horses.

Dad: "They're old racehorses that normally get sold off for meat. We pool our money to buy what we can at auction before the slaughterhouse gets 'em." . . .

Son: But my mind's stuck on the meat part. "People eat horses?" I ask.

Dad: "Dogs. They get sold for dog food."

But according to this article on Wikipidia horse meat has been banned from pet food since the 1970's, and 90% of horsemeat goes for human consumption overseas. With all the intense discussion these days about the pros and cons of horse slaughter, how could an author get this fact wrong? In fact, several more times in the book there is talk about horses ending up as dog food. And now this book will sit on library and school shelves around the country for years to come perpetuating this misinformation. Are we dumbing this down for young people? Or did the author truly not know this? Surely, Candlewick, the publisher, should have checked this out.

Okay, a couple more petty little things. When Harp is getting Boo ready for Cole's first ride on a horse, he saddles him, then asks for "them stirrup straps," which he then attaches to the saddle. Well, maybe on a English saddle you'd do it like that. But on a Western saddle (which it obviously is, because not much later Cole grabs the "knob" on the top of the saddle to get on) the stirrups are already attached. (Trust me, I owned a saddle shop, I know these things.)

Worse yet, when Cole's horse spooks at a plastic bag, Harp attaches a "leash" to him (a rope that runs to the spooky horse's saddle) as if that will help. No, no, no, and NO. I could see him attaching a rope to the horse's halter and ponying him through a spooky neighborhood. That's a common thing you might do for the safety of a beginning rider. But if you attach a rope from one horse to another's saddle, you are only inviting a wreck. (Don't ask me how I know this.) 

I will shut my mouth and not mention how three inner-city boys (two of which have never been on a horse before, and one only once) can steal three horses from a barn, jump on them bareback during the night, with no halters or gear of any kind, and guide them through a corral, out a gate, and away through the park in the dark.

Now granted, I am a sixty-something white woman and not the intended audience for this book. Hopefully, it will still appeal to reluctant-reading boys who are looking for a bit of an adventure, and probably girls who are attracted by a horse on the cover (as I was.)

The story itself was great, the setting unique, and I believe it is still a worthwhile read.

But I know lots of horse lovers are going to read this book, and some things are going to bother them. So authors, if you're going to write about something you are totally unacquainted with, please get all your facts straight. Okay, I'll shut up now.

For more about how G. Neri was inspired to write this story, read here

Readers, find this book, and tell me what you think. Regardless of all my petty grievances with the facts of the book, I still give it: 4 out of 5 stars.


Laura Marcella said...

It sounds like an interesting premise! Too bad there are some things incorrect, though. Perhaps the author thought the research she (or he?) had was correct, or perhaps she's writing from her own experience with horses and that's how she did it. Who knows!

Dreaming said...

It always bothers me to read a book on just about any subject I know anything about, and have the author included inaccurate information or incorrect terms.
A few months ago there was a story on the news about inner city kids, somewhere, riding horses through the streets. Not sure where, though.
Thanks for the review

Linda Benson said...

Laura and Dreaming - the author is a "he," and I believe he did check a few things out and obviously tried to do a good job with the subject matter, and managed to turn it into a fascinating story. I appreciated it for what it was, and it's just darn hard to get details right in an area in which you don't have a ton of experience.

Which is probably why the old adage "write what you know" holds so much value! ;-)

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

Great review, Linda. I heard/saw Greg Neri speak at the Florida SCBWI this past January. I was really impressed by him. It sounded to me like he did a ton of research for Ghetto Cowboy. I wonder if there is some wiggle room between the facts you found and the facts he worked with. I also had the impression that the story was set in the past, but I haven't read the novel (yet). Thanks for this!

Gigi said...

Hi Linda!
I'm so glad you reviewed Ghetto Cowboy by Greg Neri here. I read it earlier this year and really loved it so much. Isn't it funny how folks can have such different reactions to a book? That makes for rich, thought-provoking discussion! You know, despite what that wiki article says about laws of the U.S. regarding the sale of horse meat for pet food here in the U.S., my understanding from my own research is that, sadly, horse meat does end up in dog food, making its way back into this country via pet food made outside the U.S. and evidenced in the ingredient 'animal byproduct'. Even the wiki article [btw, wiki is not a definitive source for ANY research, right?] states that some horse meat from formerly operating U.S. slaughterhouses went to zoos. So, ok. Not dog food, but lion food, I guess.

I also felt like some of the horse terminology was described in certain ways because Train was totally new to the horse world. To him, the lead looked like a leash; the character was applying a word and function from his own experience to this new experience at the stables with his dad. In fact, I felt like the other characters sort of ribbed him about that word, specifically.

I chuckled, too, at your reaction to stirrup strap! BUSTED: I use that term all the time. [Most recently to my daughter as in, "What happened to my saddle? You stole my stirrup straps, give them back!"]

Again, I really enjoyed reading your post! It's great to see such a fine book get good, thoughtful consideration. I love books that give kids access to new ideas and new worlds. This is sure one of them.

Linda Benson said...

Cynthia and Gigi - yes, it's good when books get talked about. It makes more people want to read them, and that's a good thing!

Gigi, I totally agree with you about books giving kids access to new worlds. In fact, this book made me aware of a segment of horse culture that I knew nothing about.

All in all, apart from me being picky about a few little things, I believe it's a great read!