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Monday, March 5, 2012

The Winter Pony, written by Iain Lawrence. Delacorte, Random House. 2011. $18.99 ages 10 and up

"It was an awful shock to have the ground fall away, to be suddenly standing  on nothing. I felt my heart push up through my throat as I hurtled down. For just an instant, my eyes were level with Patrick's - and what a startled look I saw! Then he was above me and I was still falling."

The Antarctic was a yet unexplored place little more than one hundred years ago. Two men were determined to be first to reach the South Pole, and they resolved to make it a race.

What would make Captain Robert Scott choose to take ponies on this treacherous trek? First he had to find the ponies that might endure the cold weather and terrible conditions. He found them in Manchuria and along with sled dogs, he loaded them aboard ship, convinced that they would make the perfect haulers for the many provisions and the plethora of equipment that would need to be transported across the vast ice land.

Iain Lawrence has chosen to tell his newest tale in first person narrative....or would I be more accurate in saying first horse narrative? Indeed, it is told from the point of view of one of those Manchurian ponies...named Jimmy Pigg. Surprised? So was I. And, I wasn't sure that I was going to be able to suspend belief enough to make the tale a great read for me.

I was wrong! In their race against Roald Amundsen, Captain Scott and his men had to survive a long sea journey before setting out across the ice to claim being first to the South Pole. The harsh conditions and the many dangers faced did not deter them; they only made them more determined than ever to push forward with the task at hand. They faced enormous odds in their crevices, bone-chilling temperatures, predatory killer whales, and even entrapment in the sea ice. Death seemed imminent. The ponies knew nothing of the need to be first....they only knew the dangers, the harsh weather, the long days and the endless work. Their fate, it seemed, was sealed:

"He was terrified, and the smell of his fear made the rest of the ponies uneasy. The men closed in around him. He ran up against a sledge. He nearly trampled a tent, and all the time kept shrieking and fighting, leaping clear from the ground with his four hooves flailing."

Iain Lawrence writes books to be loved and celebrated by his many fans. His skill with word choice and impeccable plot construction seems to make this story more powerful with each turn of the page. I spent every minute cheering the horses on, and hoping for success in their journey. It is not an easy read, for obvious reasons. As well, the cast of characters is huge and Mr. Lawrence acknowledges that with a list provided at the back of the book. It was helpful. There is so much to know about the Scott expedition and he does a credible job of making his readers aware of the story that was told to him as a young boy by his father. I like the narratives that he includes at the end of each chapter. They are a overview of the events for both teams as they race to be first:

"It's October 19 when Amundsen finally starts for the Pole. Now it's spring without a doubt, and there's no thought of turning back. He has no idea how far the Englishmen might have gotten by now, if they've met the same cold that forced him off the Barrier. He thinks of the motor sledges; he imagines their tracks turning round and round, mindless of the temperature."

This is a book that is sure to find an appreciative and enthusiastic audience.

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