What I’ve been reading – the ‘My Friend Flicka’ series


In a complete and utter change of pace from my last ‘What I’m reading’ post, I’ve recently been revisiting Mary O’Hara’s classic series (My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead, and Green Grass of Wyoming) about life on a Wyoming ranch. I got onto this because I happened to find My Friend Flicka in a charity shop browse; I actually, as it happens, have had Thunderhead on my shelves for a while now having found a second-hand copy somewhere or other, probably in another charity shop browse, so I decided to go ahead and complete the set and ordered a used copy of Green Grass cheaply on Amazon and read the lot. I did read the books as a child, but in a skip-and-skim kind of way; parts of them interested childhood-me a lot, parts not at all. This re-read, therefore, was the first time I’d actually read them properly all the way through, and was an interesting combination of rediscovering sections that came back to me vividly as I read them, and being struck by aspects of them that had zoomed over my head the first time.

One thing I realised for the first time was just how long ago these were written; as a child, I don’t think I’d really taken in that they actually date back to the 1940s. (I’m not sure whether that’s a tribute to the timelessly good writing or an indictment of my powers of observation.) Reading it as an adult (and a doctor), I was struck by the fact that the reason Ken and Flicka both come so close to dying in the first book was because this was the pre-antibiotic era and there simply wasn’t much that could be done for severe infections. And by the fact that the McLaughlins don’t even get a phone until the third book and that this is so taken for granted it barely rates a mention.

More insidiously, there’s also the way the female characters are presented. When I read the first book as a child, the character I identified with was the eponymous Flicka, for the simple reason that the only human female character who gets more than a very brief walk-on part in the whole of the first two books is Ken’s mother Nell. Who spends half her time planning meals for the menfolk and half of it fretting over the way her husband is taking his frustrations and fears over their money worries out on her. Rereading the books, I found new appreciation for Nell’s character; she is beautifully portrayed, a complex, intelligent, sensitive woman caught in the hell of an insoluble situation. But, other than the occasional scene where her sons go to her for advice or homilies, she doesn’t really do anything that my childhood self could either identify with or aspire to.

In the third book we get two more female characters – Carey, beautiful and sweet but passive and immature (at one point in the book, her response to Ken’s attempt to discuss her plans for her future is to go into rhapsodies over how adorable the eight children she wants are going to be and won’t Ken join her in her game of planning names for them?), and her monstrously manipulative grandmother, whose determination to keep Carey under her thumb is largely responsible for Carey’s failure to grow up. O’Hara does an excellent job of portraying a deeply manipulative relationship and the difficulties of breaking free after years of being groomed to find this manipulation normal, and I can recommend this as a great piece of writing; but, again, it’s not something in which, as a child, I could find a role model or a character I really felt good about identifying with.

Even the way O’Hara writes about the horses drifts off into a male-dominated picture. This, of course, is partly because horses by their nature live in a male-dominated world – as unintentionally exemplified by this snippet from Green Grass of Wyoming, in which Ken tries to explain to the naive Carey why her filly Jewel has been stolen by his stallion Thunderhead:

‘…It’s kind of like falling in love. He knew she was a winner and he just kicked the crate to pieces until she was free and ran away with her – kind of eloping.’

‘But what if she didn’t want to go?’

Ken grinned. ‘Well, he’d make her. That’s what a stallion does. But he’ll take good care of her – Oh, the very best care! You don’t need to worry about her coming to any harm!’

Carey’s tears were drying and she looked at Ken, intrigued by this strange tale of wild-animal romance.

Ah, yes, that well-known sign of a great romance – one of the pair is quite happy to force the other one against zir wishes without, in fact, caring in the slightest what zie wants. Exactly the example we want to be giving to young people.

That, of course, is simply a case of horses not really being the best role models for human relationships; but it also occurred to me, as I read, that O’Hara even let her female equine characters fade into the background once a stallion was in the picture. In the first book, Flicka’s supposed to be Ken’s one chosen horse and true love forever (which ends up being quite a raw deal for Flicka, as the attempts to capture her for Ken unintentionally lead to her receiving a near-fatal injury which leaves her forever robbed of the incredible speed that caught Ken’s attention in the first place). But the second and third books focus on her son, Thunderhead. Flicka does go on to have a daughter, Touch And Go, who in fact becomes the one to save the ranch at the end of the second book by winning a crucial race and thus paying off the family’s crippling debts, but this scene is mentioned almost in passing as the book gets back to the far more important issue of Thunderhead’s fate. By the third book, Flicka barely figures and Touch And Go, gets one single brief passing mention; even though the racehorse owner who bought her figures largely in the story, there isn’t so much as a passing question or mention as to how Touch and Go is doing, and Thunderhead is talked about as though he’s the only racehorse in the bunch.

There were, conversely, many aspects of the book I appreciated far more on a reread; Ken’s development and growth through the novel and the beautiful and vivid depictions of Wyoming ranch life. I remembered why I did like these books as a child, but I also had more conscious awareness of what it was about them that left me not feeling as comfortable.

Who here has read the books? What did you think of them and what do you think of them on looking back?

Comments

  1. Marie the Bookwyrm says

    I’ve read these books. I read My Friend Flicka as a child, and had no idea that there were sequels. In my high school library I discovered the 2nd and 3rd books. Being very hung up on horses at the time, I was thrilled to read them.

    As an adult, I’m not that keen on them anymore. I absolutely hated Ken’s dad! I remember reading somewhere that the character was based on O’Hara’s own father. And I thought that if that was true, I felt awfully sorry for her and her mother. 🙂

    I will say, though that no matter now many times I read it, the death of Pilgrim (the dog) in the 3rd book always reduced me to tears.

    • Dr Sarah says

      Ummm… I have to admit Pilgrim made so little impression on me I’ve just had to check who the heck he was and how he died, despite only having reread the books a few weeks ago. I’m obviously much too hard-hearted!

      Ken’s dad is probably best summarised as ‘everyday toxic masculinity’. It’s really sad, when you think about it – he’s actually a decent, solid guy, but he’s grown up in a culture that teaches him that that kind of borderline emotionally abusive behaviour is normal and nothing too important. Yeah, I feel sorry for Nell. And for O’Hara’s mother.

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