Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The God of Animals

Alice Winston is a 12 year-old girl whose dysfunctional and isolated family life has left her unable to cope when a classmate of her dies. Her father, Joe Winston, a horseman with too many of his own problems to worry about his daughter's, leaves her emotionally starved and physically overburdened. He doesn't notice as her clothes become too small and too tight and expects her to muck the horse stalls, take care of the horses and help out with her clinically depressed mother who hasn't left her bedroom in over a decade.

In this burdensome environment, her sixteen year-old sister elopes with a rodeo cowboy creating an even wider gulf between Alice and other girls her age. Sheila, a girl her age but from the other side of town, starts coming out for riding and showmanship lessons. The family financially depends on this girl and her money, forcing Alice to befriend Sheila although she has few of the necessary social skills to do so.

As the family business struggles financially, her father submits to what he calls his last resort and allows other people to board their pedigree horses in their barn. A group of rich women, dubbed the Catfish by Alice, start coming too frequently to socialize, ride their horse and drink out of paper cups and one of the women begins a dangerous flirtation with Alice's own emotionally starved father.

There are so many things I enjoyed about this book. The writing is beautiful and the author, Aryn Kyle, does an amazing job weaving in the landscape and weather to amplify the mood and the world of horse breeding and shows as the catalyst for Alice's coming of age. This would have been a much different story if told by her father, or her mother or even her older sister. But it was told through Alice and we understand her low self-worth, her confusion and desire to please, her ultimate need to know that she was being taken care of. I wanted to reach through the book and hug her and reassure her that she was doing a good job and that I noticed. All she wanted was to be noticed and accepted for who she was and what she was good at.

A haunting family story with a beautiful but harsh landscape, Alice grows up understanding that dreams don't always come true, the good guy doesn't always finish first and that nature can be cruel.

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