Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Horses and History by Alison Hart

I’ll admit it: I have been horse crazy since my first Steiff pony and Billy and Blaze picture book by C.W. Anderson. Decades later, my passion is still with me: I ride my Quarter Horse, Relish, read horse books (try Chosen by a Horse a memoir by Susan Richardson), and write about horses.

Under my real name Alice Leonhardt and my pen name Alison Hart, I have written over fifty books about horses. Many are contemporary including books in the Nancy Drew and Thoroughbred series, my own Riding Academy series, Shadow Horse, an Edgar nominated mystery, and its sequel Whirlwind (Random House). I also have combined horses and history to create suspense-filled historical fiction. The two meld perfectly because humans and horses have been intertwined as early as 3500 BC when horses were raised for milk and meat in Kazakhstan. (See the fascinating March 2009 article in National Geographic)

Horses have been used (and exploited) by humans in all parts of the world. In America, horses became extinct about 10,000 years ago and were then reintroduced by 16th century Spanish Explorers. That gives me centuries of history to write about. My Racing to Freedom trilogy (Gabriel’s Horses, Gabriel’s Triumph and Gabriel’s Journey) focus on the 1800’s when horses were necessary for transportation, farming, commerce—and war.

            During the Civil War, both the Confederate and Union armies depended heavily     upon horses. The animals were needed to pull wagons, cannons, and ambulances         to and from battlegrounds. The horses also carried cavalry soldiers and officers    into battle. About 1.5 million horses and mules died during the Civil War.
            From “The History behind Gabriel’s Journey” by Alison Hart.

Bell’s Star is set in 1800’s Vermont and my newest book, Risky Chance (both from the Horse Diaries series from Random House) is set during the Great Depression. Writing historical fiction means I have to know the facts. The Racing to Freedom trilogy took over two years to research. I have notebooks and file folders of notes and photos from visits to Lexington and Camp Nelson, Kentucky, and Saratoga, New York; magazine articles, old maps, and scrawled notes from over two hundred books and online sources. My job as a writer is to use the facts to write a compelling story for young readers. Take for example, a scene from Gabriel’s Journey—which is about an African American cavalry unit that fought at the Battle of Saltville, Virginia—that I created around the statistics on the number of dead horses:

            I lead Sassy and Hero up onto the road. In front of us, a bulky mound lies in the center of the lane. The horse that was shot is dead. Blood oozes from its neck and shoulder. Already someone has stripped it of bridle, saddle, and gear. Soldiers lead their mounts around it or step over it. No one but me pays it any mind.
            I remember Jackson’s words when we first visited Camp Nelson and saw the broken-down remounts: Horses don’t choose to fight, and they sure don’t get no enlistment fee.
            And no glory neither, I see now. The body will be left for vultures and varmints.
            My eyes blur. I lead Sassy and Hero around the fallen horse and say a silent prayer.

Whether it’s a pony on the prairie during the Blizzard of 1888 (Anna’s Blizzard) or a Morgan horse helping a runaway slave in 1850 (Bell’s Star), each novel I write must be filled with vivid scenes that not only convey our history, but bring it to life for readers.

Contributor: Alison Hart

To have Alison visit your school or organization email marilyn@childrenslit.com

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