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The Fire Pony by Rodman Philbrick

November 28, 2012

Children’s Bood Review: The Fire Pony by Rodman Philbrick Lexile Level 1010

The story of two orphaned brothers, one in his twenties and one twelve. The elder brother, Joe, has secreted Roy away from the foster home where life was bad, and now the two are on the run. Moving from odd job to odd job Joe is trying to keep Roy away from state authorities, and in his own way trying to be a good big brother.

As with many younger brothers, Roy has a blind spot for Joe’s character weaknesses. All he knows is that Joe saved him from the foster home, and they are fiercely loyal to each other, but Roy still has dreams of a good life. He hasn’t given in to the cynical outlook which colors Joe’s view of the world.

When the pair pull into the Bar None ranch they are surprised at the welcome they receive. The young foreman has his reservations about the two, but he gives them the benefit of the doubt until the boss, Mr. Jessup, arrives from a horse buying trip.

Joe’s expertise as a farrier and his way with the unruliest of horses gets him a job at the Bar None. Roy is put to work doing chores and thinks he’s almost in heaven being around so many beautiful Arabian horses. Roy’s gift for handling horses is evident to Mr. Jessup and he offers Roy a fast little mare with the proposal of “if you can break her, you can keep her.”  Lady proves to be a challenge, but Roy’s  gentle ways and patience win her over.

Roy is enjoying life at the Bar None, but Joe  is getting restless. Roy knows what that means: Joe takes to drinking when he feels caged, and there is the lurking fear that the event of the unexplained fire at the last place might repeat itself. The school social worker knows about Roy and is expecting to see him at school come fall, but Joe has secrets, and he’s getting anxious about staying in one place too long.

A local horse race ends with enmity with one of the neighbors after Lady easily beats the competing favorite.  Joe gets in a fight with the neighbor, and from here the story takes its foreshadowed dark turn. The story ends with a dramatic fire that starts at the neighbor’s and becomes a brush fire heading for the Bar None. The barn is engulfed in flames when Roy runs in to save Lady. In an act of selflessness, Joe saves Roy and Lady, but is lost to the fire in not so subtle irony.

I found this story to be a strange mixture of boy-meets-horse-on-the-ranch similar to the straightforward adventure of Black Stallion, superimposed with the disturbing character and arsonist tendencies of Joe.  For me, the two never meshed to make a believable story. It seemed the fascination with fire and the hints that Joe sets fires when he is angry or vengeful added no redeeming aspect to the story. It seemed more like an addition to what would have been a predictable, but enjoyable easy read, in an effort to make it more current or edgy.

Honestly, I think my twelve year old would have simply classified it as “weird.”

Flags:

  • Use of “hell” pg 47
  • Joe drinks a six pack of beer  and smokes cigarettes  pg 47
  • “Joe has downed a couple of beers before you know it, and he’s getting that look on his face that means he’s changing inside. I’m not afraid of Joe- he’d never hurt me- but I’m scared of what he might do.” pg 49
  • Mr. Jessup says “shut up” because he is nervous before a calf roping competition pg 131
  • Roy tries to understand what Joe sees in fire, and how it makes him “kind of crazy” pg 52
    “All I can think about is this: What does Joe see inside the fire? Can he hear that fire wind singing to him? Can he see the river inside the flames, or the fluttering wings? Can he feel the way it has to keep moving or die” pg 162
  • Joe and the big stallion, Showdown,  die in the barn fire. Showdown is hurt when he runs into the burning barn ridden by Joe.  Joe deliberately stays with him and both die in the fire.
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