CM . . .
. Volume XXI Number 10 . . . . November 7, 2014
Jennifer Dance's Paint is a North American Black Beauty. As many young readers know, Anna Sewell's Black Beauty, published in 1877 was the first-person story of a horse and also an expose of the prevalent inhumane treatment of horses and other animals in 19th century Britain. Paint, the story of a mustang, presented in the third person, also has a social purpose, that of revealing the genocide and environmental destruction that occurred on the North American Great Plains in the late 19th century.
Paint begins with a prologue, set in 1895, that shows the old horse succumbing to a dust storm: "Her black and white markings vanished under a coat of sand." Beginning with the death of the principal character would seem to take away the reader's incentive to read on. Yet anyone capable of reading Paint will have encountered the deaths of animals in fiction and in life. Squeamish readers are warned, up front, and can turn to something else if the death scene is off putting to them.
In the first chapter, Dance reinforces the fact that Nature is red in tooth and claw, by showing readers the boss animal of a herd of wild mares and colts, en route to the safety of scrub woodland, being halted by labour. Fearful of wolves, the other horses leave the birthing mare behind. She dies giving birth, but a 12-year-old Lakota youth, Noisy Horse, rescues the foal.
The foal, Paint, is gently and humanely trained by Noisy Horse and his father to take part in the buffalo hunts which provide the band with their food. Much of this section, while in the third person, is presented from Paint's perspective. Because the buffalo herds' migration paths have changed, the band has to travel to the foothills in order to have a fall hunt rather than a spring hunt. On returning to the grasslands in spring, they are met by U.S. soldiers who fire on them because they have not complied with the law requiring them to move onto a reservation. In the confusion, Paint escapes.
As Paint passes from one owner to another, readers see the white newcomers changing life on the great plains, and not for the better. Following the spoor of other horses, Paint winds up at Abe's Buffalo Hunting Company, a business which provides city slickers with the chance to be buffalo hunters for a day. Abe recognizes Paint's talents as a hunting horse and treats her well, but she feels oppressed by the saddle, harness and bit.
Because the buffalo have been hunted to near extinction, Abe decides to close his business and go back east to live in luxury. He sells Paint to Jeb, a would be cattle rancher. Jeb feels confident of prospering, but he doesn't know that rainfall on the Great Plains is unpredictable, that the grassland could be come a desert during droughts, and that winters could be "killers." "None of the ranchers knew these things," writes Dance, "because no white men had set foot on the plains until recently." Jeb is a humane master, and Paint's life is happy enough until the inevitable drought. Jeb is about to shoot Paint, to save her from a prolonged death from hunger and thirst, but, at the last minute, gets the chance to send her with a man taking horses to Saskatchewan.
In Saskatchewan, a British couple with a boy purchase Paint. Formerly tenant farmers, they have immigrated to Canada in response to flashy government advertisements about homesteading opportunities in the Canadian west. This part of the novel involves less of Paint's point of view, but the account of the settlers adapting with the help of their neighbours is engaging because of the fully-rounded characters Dance has created. During this period, Paint has a foal which combines her swiftness and beauty with the strength and endurance of its father. The final chapter is a detailed, disturbing evocation of a dust storm, a precursor of the "dust bowl" conditions of the 1930s.
The epilogue, set on a South Dakota reservation in 1935, shows elderly Noisy Horse telling his granddaughter about rescuing an orphaned mustang foal. He also summarizes the history of American native people from Little Big Horn to Wounded Knee. The current dust bowl conditions are the fault of homesteaders who "sucked the life from Mother Earth." The Creator is telling the Big Chief in Washington "what white men have done in their stupidity and greed." When the granddaughter asks, "And he learned the lesson, right?", Noisy Horse replies, "I don't know."
Bringing the novel around full circle provides an artistic ending. Some readers may find the epilogue too didactic, but it is certainly thought provoking. Jennifer Dance provides an afterword about the terminology she has used, information about mustangs and homesteaders, and a time line of historic events that support the story. With a B.Sc. in Agriculture and Animal Science, a knowledge of horses, and family connections to First Nations people, Dance has unique qualifications for writing Paint.
Ruth Latta is at work on a young adult novel set in 1919. For more information about her books, visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any
other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.