June 5, 2011

Spurs for Suzanna by Betty Cavanna (1947)

"Oh, why couldn't she go off to a summer place the way her friends did?  Why couldn't her family move to the suburbs?  Why couldn't she do what she most wanted--ride horses?  Why?  --Sue knows the answer.  Her father is ill.  Her mother must work.  When the Ballantines invite her to the farm she discovers she has much to learn about riding--and other people.  Another novel by a writer who is tops with teen-agers--Betty Cavanna."

Betty Cavanna has written such a number of iconic novels for 'teen-agers' that it was hard to decide which book to talk about first.  Her books were stand-alone novels that focused on one particular girl and her ambitions, her personal journey, and, often secondarily, her love life. Cavanna created vivid, endearing characters in vibrant, memorable settings--from a Swiss boarding school to an artist's colony on Cape Cod to an Eastern horse ranch.

Although my two favorites are probably Passport to Romance (the Swiss boarding school) and Paintbox Summer (the artist's colony), I keep coming back to Spurs for Suzanna as Cavanna's most representative work.  I've had this book since I was a very young girl, and have read it many times.  I was never a horse-obsessed girl, but something about this book spoke to me.

As the novel begins, Sue is having lunch with her friends at school and discussing their summer vacation plans.  Everyone has fun plans out of town but Sue, whose grandmother just sold the family beach house and is facing a dreary summer alone in the city (Philadelphia).  I love this passage describing her walk home from school--as a Midwestern suburban kid, city living seemed impossibly sophisticated to me:
"The red light changed to amber, brakes squealed, amber shifted to green, and Sue started across the street, neither hurrying nor loitering, her smooth young face a mask.  This was her automatic city-expression, an aloof, indifferent look that never met anyone or anything directly.  She was conscious of hiding behind it, as all girls and women did, in town here, and it was part of the reason she wised she lived in the country.  In the country no one would be watching.  Walking home from school out where Pat lives she'd be able to pout or laugh or scratch her stomach if she felt like it, as she did now." 
Sue attends a private school and her friends live mostly in the town and the country.  The public school kids consider her a snob for attending private school.  The best part of her day is visiting with the mounted policeman and his horse.  A latchkey kid (in 1947!), she goes home to an empty house, as her mother kept her job as a fashion photographer after Sue's father fell ill with a tubercular infection.

Things start to look up when Sue's mother takes her to the Devon Horse Show for her fifteenth birthday.  Here's Sue, getting dressed for the horse show: 
"She was wearing her first real suit, a gray men's wear flannel jacket bound with white and a brief kick-pleated skirt.  She had a gray beanie to match the outfit but she decided against it.  Girls were going without hats this year, even in the city and on trains."
At the horse show, her mother runs into an old friend and Sue is invited to spend a month with the Ballantines at High Acres, their horse farm.  Sue is extraordinarily excited for her visit, to the exclusion of all else.  Before she leaves, her mother enigmatically presents her with her aunt's spurs--noting that she doesn't expect them to be used on a horse.

Sue arrives at High Acres, meets the family--including slightly older Jigger, slightly younger Missy, ten-year-old Poke and baby Stevie.  After being so excited for her trip, she starts to feel ill at ease.  She's not very used to housework, she dresses too well to go riding, and she feels like an outsider in the family, as a paying guest to the farm.  She goes on a ride much rougher than she'd been used to in the city with the Ballantine kids and ends up falling off her horse into a brook.  She stomps off: 
"Jigger smiled, trying to make Sue meet his eyes.  'You're not bad-looking when you're mad,' he said insolently.  A backhanded compliment if Sue had ever heard one, and yet, against her will, she felt a small thrill of pleasure."
(It's important to mention that it was previously described that Jigger has "dark, crisp hair.")  Sue gets back on the horse, learns to curry horses, and watches the gentle blacksmith shoe a feisty horse. She goes fishing with Poke and discovers a kindred book reader, but still has prickly relations with Jigger and Missy.  She's homesick, but for her parents' sake, she tries to fit in and writes charming letters to her father about her adventures.  Jigger and Missy urge her to learn to jump on her horse, but Sue is afraid and refuses.  She goes with the family to a gymkhana and competes in a few contests, and manages to control her horse when he is spooked and runs away.  Still afraid to jump, she overhears the Ballantines skeptically discussing whether she's learn to jump:
"'All right!' she whispered with her back against the bedroom door.  'I'll show you!  You just wait!'  And her eyes, stormy and resolute, rested for an instant on the little pine night table, where she had recently placed as an ornament Aunt Suzanna's silver spurs."
One day, when the family is away, Sue decides to try jumping on her own.  It's all going well, until her horse doesn't make it over a fence and is badly hurt.  She calls the kindly blacksmith and owns up to her mistake to the Ballantines.  Luckily, the horse will recover and she continues to learn jumping with the family.  After the month is up, she goes home changed.  Instead of moping around the house, she dusts and makes dinner for her mother and herself.  Her father has a new enthusiasm as he's started turning Sue's letters into a children's book. AND, Sue invites Jigger (by letter, no less) to a dinner party and he accepts!

One of Betty Cavanna's strongest gifts is her characterization.  Sue has so many layers--sophisticated and assured in the city, ill at ease at first in the country and with a growing insight into how her actions and feelings affect others.  In addition, Cavanna creates such strong characters in Sue's working mother, her invalid (but still vital) father, and all of the Ballantines.  Even though the story is simple (girl goes to a horse farm and learns about life), Cavanna manages to make it a deeply textured one that is still relevant over sixty years later.