Storm Horse and reading with emotional investment

posted in: Nick Garlick | 7

Storm-Horse-300pxA finely woven novel exploring grief, hope and friendship, Storm Horse by Nick Garlick moved me to tears, even though I started reading it with a great sense of wariness, my inner cynic poised to be proved right with the slightest hiccup in plot, writing or characterization.

Having recently lost his parents, a young boy can’t believe he’ll ever feel at ease with the relatives who have agreed to take responsibility for him. But all that changes when he makes friends with a horse. A growing sense of trust and (self) belief enables him to find a place where he’s happy to belong, even though in the process he comes face to face with some of his greatest fears, loss and sadness.

This page-turner, with dramatic, breath-taking scenes worthy of the vast gloomy shore skies under which it is set made me nervous before I turned the first page; Storm Horse is set on the Frisian islands off the north coast of the Netherlands and is partly inspired by a very emotive true life story about a lifeboat disaster that devastated an island community.

Surrounded by huge and exhilaratingly beautiful sandy beaches, the lifeboat on Ameland was traditionally launched by horses who pulled the boat over the sand and then into the tide, enabling launches where no pier existed. But in 1979 eight horses drowned during a lifeboat launch and in this small island community their terrible loss was felt deeply and powerfully and is still remembered with great sorrow, but also pride, for launching lifeboats with horses was something unique to this particular community, long after other Frisian islands had given up on this tradition.

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As it happens I know Ameland and this story rather well (the photo above shows M and J visiting the grave and memorial to the eight horses back in 2012, whilst the photos below show a re-enactment I once saw of how the lifeboat used to be launched), and so when I found out about a novel set on the Frisian islands, centered on horses and lifeboat rescues I was both curious and anxious.

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Starting a novel when you already have an emotional investment in it is a scary thing. What if it doesn’t live up to your hopes? What if you feel it betrays the beauty / the sorrow / the wonder you feel about certain events or places or times?

But I took the plunge and turned the first page and…

…Well here’s why I think you might enjoy this book as much as I did, even if you’ve never heard of the Frisian islands and have not one ounce of hope at stake when you come across it in your local bookshop or library:

  • Storm Horse is brilliantly plotted with chapter endings which demand you turn the page and read just a bit more. I actually read this book in a single sitting and couldn’t believe how the time and pages had whizzed by.
  • Garlick’s characterization is lovely, authentic and satisfying. From the most wonderful Aunt Elly, who exhibits the kindness, compassion and wisdom that we all wish we had, to the silent and imposing (and ultimately big hearted) Uncle Andries, via uncannily spot-on observations about life as a seven year old who wants to be a part of everything, to the thoughtfulness of old and lame Mr Bouten, the cast of this story is rich and not without humour.
  • Bereavement and how people cope with loss is explored in several different strands, each offering a different light and reflection on the grieving process and being able to eventually see light at the end of a sorrowful tunnel.
  • Quietly and powerfully Storm Horse gives its readers a sense that they can find a way to hold on to what matters to them, through perseverance, through patience, through resourcefulness and generosity. What a great gift from a book, don’t you think?

  • This is no literal re-telling of the terrible, heart-breaking events of the 14th of August 1979; Garlick sets his story on an imaginary island (though Ameland is briefly mentioned), and yet all the details ring beautifully true. The challenges of island life are not shied away from, but read this moving, convincing, vivid novel and I think you may nevertheless fall in love.

    Now… what will my lifeboat-mad, Dutch husband who spent every childhood summer on Ameland think of this book? Well, somehow I’m going to have to find the time to read it aloud to him and the girls as I now know I needn’t have worried: Storm Horse is a cracker.

    Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of this book by the publisher.
    I would expect to find this book in the part of the bookshop/library aimed at 8/9 – 12/13 year olds.

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    7 Responses

    1. Simone Fraser

      This is such a beautiful post, Zoe. Thanks so much, yet again. I’m looking forward to see it arrive in Sydney.
      Are you aware of ‘Flight,’ written by Nadia Wheatley and illustrated my the superbly gifted Armin Greber? Apologies if you’ve written about it! It is a very moving depiction of the plight of refugees, without taking a ‘sledgehammer’ approach.

    2. Susan Bossi

      I am currently reading this aloud to two separate groups of low level (resistant) 4 the grade students. They now run in daily to continue hearing Flip’s journey. It has been a wonderfully engaging tale that has gripped these students!

    3. Kelly Hauck

      I just read this incredible book to my 2 sons, 1st and 4th grade. We LOVED it and it moved me to tears as I read it on several occasions. My youngest son was very involved in the book and for a week after we finished it he was still asking me to read Storm Horse and I had to remind him we finished it. He would give me such a sad look. It was adorable. I read to my sons every night, in winter sometimes for hours. My oldest son is easy to please, he adores books. But it is often a challenge to grasp my 1st graders attention. It was awesome. And it started some difficult conversations which I welcomed, so necessary. Thanks for the review. Well likely read it again.

      Any recommendations for another book of the same stature? I’m always looking to add to our home library. I read to them every night and love all genres. We finished Swiss Family Robinson’s before this and enjoyed that too. Have read the 1st 2 Percy Jackson also, really fun. Leaving the rest for my 4th grader to read on his own.

      • Zoe

        Hi Kelly, I’m so happy to hear your family has really enjoyed this book (and that you’re all budding Percy Jackson fans!). Have you tried any Astrid Lindgren? Her books worked really well for me kids (same age difference as yours), and some of her lesser well known ones have a lot of emotional strength to them, such as Ronia, The Brothers Lionheart or Seacrow Island.

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