NPR

Hold Your (Literary) Horses! An Exceedingly Equine Herd Of Books

From classic Westerns to racy romances, horses carry so many beloved books. Here are 10 four-legged tales to take you all over the globe.

Who needs destinations? This summer, we're focusing on the journey. All these books — some old, some new — will transport you: by train, plane, car, bike, boat, foot, city transit, horse, balloon, rocket ship, time machine and even the odd giant peach. Bon voyage! (Taxes and fees not included).

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Little House On The Prairie

In the beginning of this Little House book, the Ingalls family travels over a frozen Mississippi River and through the woods of the Midwest to make its home on the Kansas prairie. But, being a pioneer story, it isn't a smooth journey. In Minnesota, the family is held up by mud from rains, and it takes the opportunity to trade its tired horses for a pair of mustangs. In Kansas, those same mustangs struggle to swim the family's covered wagon across a deep creek, and Pa has to dive in to guide them to the other side. More adventures await after the Ingalls settle on the Plains — from building a house to meeting the neighbors to fighting off fevers and dealing with Indians.

I remember that reading this book as a kid, I was struck by how tough 19th century life was. But now I'm more impressed by the story's grown-ups. For two parents leading their family into unknown territory, Ma and Pa's composure is awe-inspiring. Maybe that (and a pair of good mustangs) was the secret to making it as a pioneer. (For ages 8 to 12)

-- Janel Kinlaw, NPR Library staff

Lonesome Dove

Ask 100 Texans any question, and you'll probably get 100 different answers — except when it comes to the unofficial state musician (Willie Nelson, of course) and the unofficial state book. Lonesome Dove isn't just an epic of the Lone Star State, though — it's one of the most purely American novels ever written. The story of a cattle drive in the 19th century West, McMurtry's magnum opus changed the way Americans looked at the Western novel. It's a heartbreaking novel with some unexpectedly funny moments, but more than anything, it's a beautiful and wrenching story about human frailty and sacrifice. There was never anything like it before it was published, and there probably never will be again.

-- Michael Schaub, book critic

On The Trail Of Genghis Khan

I heard of Tim Cope's On the Trail of Genghis Khan because two people — unknown to each other and strangers to me — told me on the same day that I must read it; and so I did. It's a lovingly detailed account of Cope's long-distance trip from Mongolia to Hungary on horseback: three years and 6,000 pretty grueling miles. Misadventures abound. Not only were there the extremes of temperature that Cope encountered on his trip — the icy steppes of Mongolia and the blistering desert heat of Kazakhstan among them — but there was also that pesky fact that Cope was pretty unfamiliar with travel via horseback, not to mention the lurking danger of horse thieves. Weaving together the history of the places he goes with fascinating accounts of the people he meets gives this account both its charm and its lasting value.

-- Nancy Pearl, librarian and book critic

The Mud Pony

In this retelling of a Pawnee folktale, a poor boy desperately longs to have a pony like his fellow tribesmen. His parents, who live in the very smallest teepee of the tribe, cannot afford to give him one, so he builds one for himself out of clay, feeding and cleaning it as though it were real. When his tribe moves suddenly in pursuit of the buffalo they rely upon for food, the boy is accidentally left behind. Bereft, he cries himself to sleep and awakens to find that his beloved mud pony has come to life. She speaks to him with the voice of Mother Earth, telling him to climb upon her back and she will guide him to his people. Their further adventures, retold with grace by Caron Lee Cohen and lovingly illustrated by Shonto Begay, will intrigue and move readers. (For ages 4 to 8)

-- Margaret H. Willison, book critic

Riders

There are the dirty books with innocuous covers — a woman's face with chiseled cheekbones and contoured eyes, a bouquet of blooming flowers — and then, there is Riders. The cover of this book is so cheeky (ha!), so ribald, so charmingly ridiculous, that you'll either bust this sucker out on your plane trip with pride or you'll hide it underneath your pashmina. Riders is Jilly Cooper's classic tale of international show jumping — and the mode of transport we're talking about is obviously horse, though they ain't the only things getting ridden, if you catch my drift. This massive book contains larger-than-life characters, sexy villains, beautiful starlets, wealth and scheming. There's a long list of characters, but the only ones you'll remember are the two show jumpers Jake Lovell (brooding schemer from lower classes) and deliciously awful Rupert Campbell-Black (gorgeous rich cad). If you don't care that Rupert is based on Camilla Parker Bowles' former husband, Andrew, well, I can't help you. The characters are snarky and wonderful, the horses sweaty and gorgeous, and the book races along like a show jumper at its best. It's so long, it can almost double as your beach cover-up. Its only flaw — at 900 pages it's almost impossible to flip to the naughty bits.

-- Barrie Hardymon, editor, Weekend Edition

As I Lay Dying

If you were assigned William Faulkner in high school, this is probably the one you read. For the downtrodden Bundren family of Yoknapatawpha County, Miss., transport options are limited. But when Addie, the family's matriarch, dies, she wants to be buried with "her people" in a town some 40 miles away. Her ineffectual husband, Anse, is determined to grant her wish, saying, "I promised my word me and the boys would get her there quick as mules could walk it, so she could rest quiet." Traveling by mule-drawn wagon across the countryside with your five children and your wife's coffin isn't as much fun as it sounds. What's in it for Anse? New teeth — the chance to satisfy a personal obligation and his own agenda. The journey is disastrous — the mules drown, the body begins to smell, a broken leg is treated with cement, and a state of permanent crisis descends. Told from the point of view of 15 characters, including the dead Addie, much of the book is written in stream-of-consciousness style. Faulkner forces you to be an exposition detective — he is not going to burden you with anything so mundane as scene-setting, or background. But as the story comes into greater relief, you can let the prose wash over you, landing in waves, as beautiful and ominous as the river itself.

-- Barrie Hardymon, editor, Weekend Edition

All the Pretty Horses

What could be better than setting off into the night on horseback? In Cormac McCarthy's seminal Western, there's almost nothing more exhilarating or desirable. Every other sentence makes you stop and revel in McCarthy's ability. Winner of both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, the novel traces the journey of teenage cowboy John Grady Cole. After his mother sells their beloved family ranch, John Grady sees no reason to remain in Texas and heads — in the company of his friend Rawlins — toward the Mexican border in search of work. The young men cross paths with characters that both cause them to fall in love and threaten them with violence. Saddle up for one of McCarthy's most extraordinary and poetic works.

-- Juan Vidal, book critic

The Diamond Age

There are many ways to get around in Stephenson's post-cyberpunk tale of child welfare and nanotechnology. Cars, boats, zeppelins, superpowered Rollerblades — all are possible. But the one that forever made me a fan of this fractured, two-way tale was the robotic horse ridden by one of the novel's two protagonists, disgraced neo-Victorian nanotech engineer John Percival Hackworth. The horse (called, classily, a "chevaline") serves as both a sly comment on the futuristic version of the Victorian gentleman that Hackworth plays at being (because what better ride for a man of quality than a fine steed?) and as nearly a character in its own right — taking Hackworth to places he could never have dreamed of going otherwise, and then waiting, loyally and eternally, for him to return from his adventures. And the best part? Because the horse knows where it's going even when Hackworth doesn't, it is graced with the best horse name ever: Kidnapper.

-- Jason Sheehan, author, most recently of Tales from the Radiation Age

A Week to Be Wicked

Spinster Minerva Highwood is convinced that if she can just get to the Royal Geological Society's meeting in Scotland and introduce her amazing geological find, her miserable life will get better. So she persuades the most notorious rake in Spindle Cove to take her there, promising him the proceeds when she wins the 500-guinea prize for best presentation. Claustrophobic and broke, Colin Sandhurst knows a days-long carriage ride is a bad idea but somehow can't persuade himself to deny the aggravating bluestocking. If she's willing to ruin herself pursuing a boring scientific prize and give him a small fortune in the process, why stand in her way? Of course, a current of mutual but unacknowledged attraction as well as a string of zany, shared experiences might just bring these two together forever. Or, to put it another way, consider this a quirky Regency romance version of The Sure Thing.

-- Bobbi Dumas, book critic

Don Quixote

To call Don Quixote a book about horses is like calling Anna Karenina a book about trains, yet where would Don Quixote and Sancho Panza be without their trusty steeds? In this early 17th century picaresque tragicomedy, Cervantes' hapless heroes gallop from one misadventure to another — tilting at windmills, attacking imaginary enemies and wooing Dulcinea — on the backs of the errant knight's skinny horse, Rocinante, and his squat squire's beloved donkey, Dapple. Don Quixote is one of the most entertaining — if cartoonishly violent — books ever written. What begins as a farcical sendup of chivalric romance literature deepens in its second half into a metafictional, modern exploration of character and a philosophical morality tale about deception, madness and the power of literature — including its potentially delusional effects on susceptible minds. But oh, what a celebration of impossible dreams!

-- Heller McAlpin, book critic

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