March 11th, 2012

Women's History Month - Elizabeth Chadwick

THE SILVER BRUMBY by Elyne Mitchell

Wednesday nights were always library nights when I was a child growing up in Scotland. I lived in a village that didn't have a library. Our nearest one was in Paisley 8 miles away, so there was also the special treat of a ride in the car to add to the experience.

Once every three weeks I would find myself growing impatient, anticipating what I might discover on the shelves this time. The library was like a sweetshop, but instead of jars of brightly coloured toffees, gobstoppers and rosy apples, there were shelves of books bursting with stories to excite my insatiable literary taste buds.

Like many children, ( particularly little girls), I had a thing about horses. I invented stories about them all the time. I wasn't into all the pony club stuff and riding stories unless there was some high drama costume adventure involved. What I really loved was to read about horses under their own control and with minds of their own! I spent many happy hours galloping round the garden pretending to be Champion the Wonder Horse, Trigger and the Lone Ranger’s Silver. I made obstacle courses and made believe I was a magnificent showjumper (the horse not the rider). I was a huge fan of Mr Ed. This is all preliminary information for you to understand that I spent a great deal of time in what I fondly imagined was a horse’s mindset.

I suppose I must have been about six years old when Elyne Mitchell’s The Silver Brumby book first caught my attention. I wasn't sure that I would be able to read the book because it was aimed at older children, but anything with a riderless horse on the front was grist to my mill. I borrowed The Silver Brumby a couple of times and made up of all sorts of stories around the cover and the illustrations without actually getting round to reading it, so even before I read it, I was being rewarded with extra imaginative value.

It was perhaps a year later that I borrowed it for a third time with more confidence to tackle all those pages of words and I was immediately hooked. All that I knew about Australia at the time came from watching Rolf Harris on the TV, (‘twas the 1960’s) but I quickly learned all about the flora and fauna of the bush and got a feel for another land, another culture.

The descriptions of Thowra, the wild Brumby hero of the novel and his journey from newborn foal to fully fledged stallion fighting for his herd and his mate, absolutely entranced me and took me away to new vistas.

The opening of the novel has to be one of the best ‘dark and stormy night’ openings I have ever read. Evocative, dramatic, immediately setting the scene and the tone of the story.

Once there was a dark, stormy night in spring, when deep down in their holes, the wombats knew not to come out, when the possums stayed quiet in the hollow limbs, when the great black flying phallengers that live in the mountain forests never stirred. On this night, Bel Bel, the cream brumby mare, gave birth to a colt foal, pale like herself, or paler in that wild, black storm.

I never wrote my stories down in childhood. I talked them to myself, changing scenes and episodes to reflect my imagination of the moment. I became an avid narrator of Thowra fan fiction. I loved the descriptions of the magnificent horses and couldn't get enough of the descriptions of Thowra rearing in rays of sunlight with his silver mane and tail like a foaming waterfall, or vanishing like a ghost in the snow with his thick silver winter coat. His cleverness at avoiding capture by learning the ways of man and how to leave no trail to follow, built my hero worship.

I loved the horsey relationships, which felt on the right side of equine so that I could imagine a horse thinking them - such as where the best grazing was and protecting one's mares from another stallion - but were also enough of a crossover for me to to be able to relate totally in my childhood world. To me Thowra was real, perhaps even super real. A true majestic hero. It is perhaps inevitable that having turned my interest to human males, I should write about William Marshal. He and Thowra have a lot in common!

Elyne Mitchell has the true storyteller's gift. Here was I a child growing up in Scotland on the outskirts of Glasgow, knowing nothing about Australia or its culture and wildlife, but I was totally sucked into the natural world of another continent. Her writing was as magical as the wonderful silver horses she had created. I went on to read and buy the rest of the Silver Brumby books, and still have them even now.

I owe a great debt to Elyne Mitchell for the hours of marvellous escapist reading, for the general knowledge about Australia that she so seamlessly imparted, and for nurturing and filling my imagination, with pictures of glorious galloping wild horses. That I am a writer now is in part because of Elyne Mitchell’s gift to my imagination.

(I forgot to ask EC for a bio and she's out of email contact because she's moving house. Sorry! Her home page is here)