Thursday, October 15, 2009

Horse Angels

"I sought the Lord and He answered me; He delivered me from all my fears. . . The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear Him, and He delivers them." Psalm 34:4, 7

This passage illuminates the lesson that "Scoop" (Sarah Coop) learns in Horse Angels, book five in Dandi Daley Mackall's Horsefeathers series. The reference to the "angel of the LORD" provides one reason for the title. The other reason is obvious when Scoop teaches her horses to roll in the snow and make horse versions of snow angels. Dandi Daley Mackall is a prolific author who began riding horses at age three. Her Horsefeathers books are full of horse facts, as well as biblical truth. Her description of horses making snow angels is vivid, and if anyone has seen it done, I am sure she has.

Horse Angels begins on Halloween, when someone sets a fire outside Scoop's stable, Horsefeathers. Fearing for her horses, she races to the scene and realizes only hay bales are on fire, and the horses are safe. This anonymous prank, coupled with a bad fall when Cheyenne, (one of the wilder horses) rears, sends Scoop into a spiral of negative "what if" thinking. Trust is already hard for Scoop, who was adopted at three, but lost both adoptive parents in a factory explosion a few years later.

As Halloween ends, and Fall stretches towards Thanksgiving and Scoop's birthday, she wonders whether her friends like her, she worries God won't provide for her, and she fears her best friend is using drugs, all while weathering a terrible blizzard. Just as Scoop struggles to trust God, she has a hard time making Cheyenne trust her. Scoop's attempts to "gentle" Cheyenne mirror God's attempts to instill trust in Scoop.

The climax of the novel occurs when Scoop, with her manic-depressive little brother, B.C., sets off in search of Jen, Scoop's best friend and Cheyenne's owner. Their search leads them through a blinding blizzard to the Dalton farm. The Daltons are rich horse owners, who rely more on technology and hired help than their hearts when training horses. Scoop is desperate to warm up B.C. and get help for Jen, who was injured when Cheyenne slid in the snow.

Believing no one was home at the Dalton residence, Scoop breaks in, receiving a hard knock on the head from Stephen Dalton, her 13-year-old cousin. Relieved to be inside the home, despite her bruise, Scoop, B.C. and Jen wait out the storm on Thanksgiving Eve with Stephen. They keep the fire going, battle bats and attempt to bake a birthday cake for Scoop and a Thanksgiving turkey. Unfortunately, the power goes out and Scoop discovers pills in Jen's coat pocket. Scoop also learns all of her friends are gathered for a surprise party in her honor on the other side of town, explaining their strange behavior earlier, and allaying Scoop's fear they don't really like her.

Eventually, Scoop learns the truth from Jen. She is in the later stages of kidney failure, but is trying to hide the seriousness of her condition from her mom and brothers. Jen is afraid to face surgery and afraid to ask one of her brothers to donate a kidney. Her fear of dying and surgery are eased by a poignant story B.C. tells, quoting his aunt comparing death to birth. This story is illustrated when one of the mares in the Dalton stables goes into labor. Scoop is forced to help the foal turn, so both front legs and it's nose will emerge first. Witnessing the birth makes Jen more determined to live, and makes Scoop realize God is with her.

Shortly after the birth, Scoop, her brother, Jen and Stephen are rescued. They all experience a release from fear and a renewed trust in God. Scoop says, "God flooded my mind with His words, a passage from Psalm 27, "The Lord is my light and my salvation--whom shall I fear?" Suddenly the fears that had plagued me since Halloween melted like snowflakes in sunshine."

What I Like: I love the fact that there are great dramatic novels for Christian teens to read. Many junior high and high school girls love series of books, especially when there are enough horses and dramatic situations involved. Mackall knows how to weave an interesting, compelling story with characters we really care about. She also knows enough about horses to write authentically. I think many Christian girls would find non-Christian friends would enjoy these books, too.

I especially like the premise of Horse Angels. Mackall acknowledges bad things happen, even to Christians. (Scoop says her friend Jen is the best Christian she knows, yet she still is diagnosed with the kidney disease nephritis.) She also shows us how even Christians can struggle with "what if" thinking. (I certainly can.) But through it all, Mackall points us to God's care and provision and we realize He will be with us no matter what. As B.C. paraphrases his aunt, "She says Jesus wouldn't have died for our sins like that on the cross just to be raised up so we could join Him in a scary place. He did all that so we could be forgiven and go to heaven. And in heaven, He's making mansions bigger than the Dalton's mansion. So that's a mighty fine place to be born when we die."

The book also includes a couple of pages of Foaling Facts at the end, which are very informative. I learned a lot about how horses have babies.

What I Dislike: The characters and set-up of Horse Angels are very similar to Mackall's Winnie the Horse Gentler series. Winnie and Scoop have both lost at least one parent, are experts at gentling horses, and are awkward around peers. Their voices sound similar, and they each run a stable to gentle horses in competition with the more high-tech stable across town. However, I don't think most teens will mind, and they may even find comfort in the predictability of similar heroines and situations.

The only other thing I don't like is a plot detail. Jen was supposed to take Scoop with her to Dalton stables to distract her while everyone else got ready for Scoop's surprise party. However, Scoop forgot and was in the tub, and by the time she realized Jen was missing and she would have to go after her, the blizzard was already beginning. Apparently, Jen left without Scoop, but she had to get her horse from Scoop's stable. It seems logical to me that Jen would have stopped by the house to collect Scoop, before starting out, but Scoop says, "It would have been just like Jen to be so stubborn about getting the library book from Stephen, she would have set out for it without me." This makes sense, but not if Jen was to keep Scoop occupied so she wouldn't find out about the party. A minor detail, but still confusing.

Overall Rating: Very Good

Age Appeal: 12-16

Publisher Info: Concordia Publishing House, 2000; ISBN: 978-0-570-07086-3 ; Paperback, $5.99

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Special Information: Check out our reviews of other Dandi Daley Mackall books here.

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