Well-written and well-researched historical fiction gives the reader a two-fer: a good story and a history lesson that you may have slept through during school.
Recently, I’ve been living in the Tudor and Plantagenet eras courtesy of Philippa Gregory. I started with the Boleyn sisters books, made into movies that I haven’t seen but I hope do justice to the books and their subjects. I don’t know how it would be possible to make a bad movie out of the historical material itself and the treatment given the characters by Ms. Gregory.
Next I read the novels about the other characters in the Henry VIII saga: The Constant Princess tells of his
first wife, Katherine of Aragon. The Queen’s Fool tells of his childrens’ reigns, Edward, then Mary and ending with the ascension of Elizabeth. The Other Queen is about Mary Queen of Scots in the later years of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign. It is the only one that I kind of wanted to end. I knew what happened to her. She ended up “with ‘er ‘ead tucked underneath her arm”. With the interminable plotting and moving about the countryside, I found myself thinking “please somebody, chop her head off and be done with it.”
Then I moved to The White Queen and The Red Queen, books about the predecessors of the Tudors, the Plantagenets and the War of the Roses. There are two more books in this series, telling the stories of the mother of Edward IV’s Queen Elizabeth (The Lady of the Rivers) and the daughters of the Earl of Warwick (The Kingmaker’s Daughter).
History from women’s point of view
You’ll notice a similarity in topic here – these are stories told from the woman’s point of view. Even if you were the most dedicated history student, you may well have not been taught much about the queen consorts or dowager queens of England. Ms. Gregory will fill in those gaps for you as well as bringing to life the monarchs they married or mothered.
Dr. Gregory always appends a bibliography to her books. I read it thoroughly and make a list of the books I want to find. She also writes a note explaining what is historical fact and what is speculation or fiction. After finishing one of her novels, I always spend an evening googling the people and the era. She makes me want to know more about them. What I find matches pretty well with what I’ve read in her books.
A while ago, I listened to a CBC radio interview with a writer about his novel set in the American West (sorry, can’t find the details online). He said he doesn’t worry about historical accuracy because readers want a good story, not to learn about an era. So he just creates his own world. I guess that applies for some readers but not me.
If I’m going to invest my time reading an era-specific book, I want it to accurately tell me about that era. I also want to know where
it deviates from history. Philippa Gregory does that, as does Michael Jecks in his medieval England mysteries. I would think that if you are going to research and travel in order to get the flavour of a historical era and the people living in it, as the writer I heard interviewed said he does, you might as well present your fictional story in a historically accurate setting. As my father always said, if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.
If you’re near London Ont. you’ve got a couple days left to see a grand play at the Grand Theatre. Tempting Providence, by Theatre Newfoundland and Labrador, runs until Friday March 31st.
It’s the story of Myra Bennett, a British nurse who came in 1921 to Newfoundland for a planned two years. She married Angus Bennett from Daniel’s Harbour and stayed on the Northern Peninsula until she died in 1990 at the age of 100. We saw the play several years ago in Cow Head, near where Mrs. Bennett lived. My dentist, who knows nothing about Newfoundland or outpost nursing, saw it in London last week. Like us, she loved it.
Tempting Providence tells her story, but it’s really the story of all the nurses who looked after the health of those living in far-flung and isolated communities on Newfoundland’s west coast. They did everything from birthing babies to surgery if need be. Many, like Nurse Bennett, came from England. Others were from Newfoundland and took nursing training in St. John’s.
In remote areas of the island, nurses were pretty much the entire medical system. There were Grenfell Mission doctors based in St. Anthony and a few cottage hospitals, but the nurses scattered in small communities were those first called upon and sometimes the only source of medical help. Today, we would call them nurse-practitioners in that they did much more than nurse training alone teaches. Many stayed for their allotted time only but others, like Mrs. Bennett, stayed and nursed those who had become their neighbours and family throughout their lives.
Midwives and Healers
There were also local midwives and healers without formal education who learned by assisting someone more experienced. Many local healers were Mi’kmaq, using barks, berries and animal parts in medicines. Some were believed to be able to “charm” illness away. Mary Francis Webb of Flat Bay was one of them. Well-known and respected, she served a huge area extending way south of her Bay St. George community right up to Corner Brook.
Nurses, midwives and healers traveled anywhere any time they were needed. They also raised children, grew gardens, tended animals and did all the work that other Newfoundland outport women did. Some of the informally trained midwives supplemented their education with formal training if they could. All worked with doctors, calling on them when they needed specialized skills. But if the doctor couldn’t get there, they had to rely on their own skills. Cecilia Benoit wrote Midwives in Passageabout Newfoundland’s traditional and professional midwifery.
Theatre Newfoundland and Labrador’s Tempting Providence conveys the hardship and the beauty of an outport nurse’s life – the place and the work. It’s a lovely play, transporting you to the Great Northern Peninsula of a century ago with the use of a simple white sheet and talented actors.
The back cover of Dick Francis: A Racing Life, a biography by Graham Lord, calls it “warm, affectionate, yet sharp and perceptive.” I usually read the jacket information before starting a book. This time I didn’t. I’m glad because I know it didn’t skew my impressions of the book.
The only word of that description with which I would agree is “sharp.” I found the book sharp to the point of nasty and petty. The first page puts the thesis forth that Dick’s wife Mary probably wrote the novels. Throughout 373 pages of text, Lord jibes and pokes about it at every chance.
The argument is that Dick Francis did not like or do well in school and that Mary did. Dick quit school as soon as he could to become a horseman. Mary went on to university, gaining a degree in French and English. Lord illustrates with facts and speculation what he calls “the most amusing literary camouflage since Marian Evans pretended to be George Eliot.”
An apparent fact is that Dick repeatedly said that Mary should be named as co-author. But Mary and the publishers thought the books were more marketable under the name of a champion jockey. Lord does paint a picture of the personalities of both Dick and Mary. What I take from his portrayal of Dick is of an unassuming man who was honest as a jockey and in all other aspects of his life. The impression of Mary that I gained from Graham Lord is that, as they say, she wasn’t backward about putting herself forward.
Mary Francis – Researcher or writer?
There has never been any hiding of the fact that Mary did much of the research for the books. In Lord’s book, I learned that she turned many of the novels’ subjects into businesses or avocations for herself. She became a pilot and ran an air taxi service, she bought into a wine importing business and she took up photography to the professional level. All this was to better research Dick Francis books. With the literary aspirations that Lord says she had, I am amazed that she did not claim the credit for them if she believed herself to be the sole or major author.
Lord says that the physical afflictions suffered by characters are those suffered by Mary, not Dick. She had polio as a young woman, so does a character. She suffered from asthma, so does a character. Literary allusions are ones that would only be known to Mary with her education, not Dick with his. The portrayal of the male heroes and the female characters seem to be written more from a woman’s perspective than a man’s. It is Mary’s sensibilities, interests and afflictions that fuel the books, Lord says.
Racing and horses are central
Ok, but I would argue that those are story elements attainable through good research and from drawing on experiences of others. At the heart of Dick Francis novels is racing and horses. You are riding in the Grand National with the book’s hero. You know the horses as sentient beings through the eyes of jockeys or grooms. And that is not Mary’s experience. She didn’t particularly like horses or racing. And physical afflictions? The descriptions of broken collarbones and dislocated shoulders are from Dick’s experience.
Lord is disparaging toward Dick about his respect for the Royal Family. As an example of what he sees as Dick’s fawning, he says that Dick asked the Queen Mother’s permission before entitling his autobiography The Sport of Queens. Why, Lord asks, should Dick think it necessary to ask permission to use that phrase? Perhaps because the phrase is actually The Sport of Kings? By changing it to Queens, Francis was making direct reference to his riding career. At that time there were two Queens and no King. As well, he rode for the Queen Mother. Perhaps he was just being polite.
Graham Lord makes much of Dick saying that writing was hard for him. Hard to believe, Lord says. Maybe, but I’ve read more interviews with best-selling authors about the difficulty of writing than those saying oh, it’s a snap. There’s also cringe-making recitations of interviews with Francis by writers for literary journals where Dick could not discuss concepts of formalism or semiotics in literature. Oh, for heaven’s sakes, not being au courant with literary analyses is hardly proof that someone can’t put pen to paper and write a good story.
Before and after reading Lord’s book, I did not think that Dick wrote the books entirely on his own. Why wouldn’t Mary contribute, edit, add her own words? Especially with their long symbiotic marriage, it seems they became almost inseparable. Their son Felix also became part of the writing machine. But at the core of all Dick Francis books are horses, racing and jockeys. Neither Mary nor Felix lived in that world. Dick did.
Graham Lord better on James Herriot
In 1997, two years before A Racing Life, Graham Lord published James Herriot: The Life of a Country Vet – the “warm but incisive” biography its cover promised. Dick Francis: A racing life is not. At 262 pages, his Herriot biography is the length A Racing Life would be if Lord cut out the waffle. That would be most of the first three chapters and the long descriptive word lists throughout. I began skimming very early.
If you had the sad job of picking the topic of the last novel you would write, I don’t think you could choose better than Dick Francis did. Crossfire, co-written with son Felix and published in 2010 by Michael Joseph, is the final book in his long and illustrious career as a mystery novelist. Dick Francis died in 2010 at the age of 89.
Crossfire is a great story and a family effort. You don’t need to google anything to know the experiences of three generations of the family are in it. The horses, stables, races and racing industry amongst which Dick Francis lived are there, as usual. But our hero is a wounded Captain in the Grenadier Guards, recently returned from Afghanistan.
The authors’ thanks are given to Lieut. William Francis, Army Air Corps and Grenadier Guards, for his assistance. He is the grandson of Dick and son of Felix. So the horse and racing elements of a Dick Francis are there, as is information and insights about a different topic. This time, that other topic is the Afghanistan war and the physical and psychological realities of being injured by an explosive device. You see the trauma of being back home but having to deal with the injury and the sudden loss of your career and your passion – soldiering.
Dick Francis and family
The book is a tribute to Lieut. Francis and his fellow soldiers in Afghanistan and elsewhere in war. It is also a tribute to Felix for carrying on his father’s work so well. And, of course, it’s a tribute to Dick Francis, master storyteller and steeplechase jockey. In his racing and writing, he has probably taught more people about the intricacies of horseracing than anyone else. And no matter what the villains of the piece do, the love Francis has for horses and his respect for their abilities and heart is always apparent.
Dick Francis’ books were written with the help of his family. His late wife, Mary, helped with research, writing and editing. Her interests and knowledge, such as in photography, were also reflected in the plots of some of his books. Felix, their younger son, helped his father with many of the books, taking an increasingly active part in the creation of the latter ones. The last three Dick Francis books are published with both Dick and Felix as co-authors.
After his father’s death, Felix has continued writing under his own name. I have not read his solo efforts yet but, based on the co-authored books, he learned well from his father. And with Crossfire, I feel I have got to know the family better. I am glad that they let me see the post-war feelings of a wounded veteran. They did it with a deft touch, put in here and there in a very good story of chicanery in the racing and investment businesses.
It was a dark and stormy night when I began reading Earl Pilgrim’s Drifting into Doom: Tragedy at Sea. Winter rain blew at the windows and tree branches hit the house. Reading about two men drifting in a dory during a January 1883 storm on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, I got chilled and thought “I knows how you feel!” Then I recollected myself, realized I was in a warm house, on a couch, with the wind and rain outside. No, I had no inkling of how Howard Blackburn and Tommy Welsh felt.
The story of the Banker schooner Grace L. Fears and the loss of one of her dories is itself a harrowing one. Trawling cod from tiny two-man boats set off the side of a schooner was a hard way to fish, especially for the dorymen. Many lives were lost on the Grand Bank fishery. This is the story of the loss of Tommy Welsh, a 16 year old from Grand Bank on the south coast of Newfoundland. It is also the story of the saving of the life of his dory mate, Howard Blackburn, an experienced fisherman originally from Nova Scotia who worked out of Glouchester, Mass.
Blackburn got the dory to shore near the tiny settlement of Little River (later called Grey River) on Newfoundland’s south coast. His frozen fingers and toes could not be saved but his hands and feet were by the skill of a local woman called Aunt Jenny Lushman. She was helped by a Mi’kmaq woman named Susie Bushney. Experienced healers and midwives that they were, neither woman had ever dealt with frostbite so severe. But Mrs. Bushney’s advice and Mrs. Lushman’s steely nerves kept Blackburn alive.
Blackburn went on to become a well-known businessman in Glouchester and a world adventurer. His dorymate Tommy Welsh was buried in Little River. The story of these men was not lost on the Grand Banks. Accounts were published at the time and Pilgrim uses these to tell a tale that lets you get to know them, the Blackburn family, the fishing company personnel and the people of Little River and Burgeo. As the cover blurb says, it keeps you “spellbound”.
The Lushman Family
Another story came from this one. Aunt Jenny Lushman lives on her own with her grown children. However, there is no Mr. Lushman. That’s the other story. As a result of publicity over Blackburn’s rescue, the story of what happened to Mr. Lushman came to light. It is also one of unbelievable happenstance and hardship. Probably it too is not an isolated case of people lost and believed gone, but it is one that became known and loose ends could be tied up. It is as epic as is the story of Howard Blackburn.
Jenny Lushman’s husband and one son left Little River for the United States in search of work. I found the story of what happened to them in a December 1912Newfoundland Quarterly article by Sir Edward Morris.* You’ll want to be tucked up in your Snuggly while reading it too. Thank you, dear reader Jim F., for this book. And Newfoundland filmmakers? Movie here!
Last night I watched the first episode of Arctic Air, CBC’s new series set in Yellowknife and surrounding lands. Tonight Republic of Doyle, set in St. John’s, returns for its 3rd season.
Major sponsors of both shows are their respective provincial tourism departments. I don’t know if that is the reason why there’s a plane with the Newfoundland and Labrador logo at the Arctic Air hangar. It might also be in recognition of the fact that there is a disproportionate number of Newfoundlanders employed in the North West Territories, both in government and private industry. Either way, it was a nice touch.
Arctic Air struck me as kind of ‘North of 60 does Dallas’. There’s the bad exploration guy, from away. There’s the conflicted hero, from ‘here’ but been away. There are the crusty, savvy locals. There’s the nice pretty girl and the not-so-nice pretty girl. There are locals (Dene and white) and come-from-aways, so we will always have someone who needs northern cultures and terrain explained and those who can do so.
And we have the terrain and the DC-3s – both starring ‘characters’ of the show. As trainee pilot Dev said, these planes fought the Nazis. And Dev himself, played by Stephen Lobo, is an absolute treat.
I want to like Arctic Air. Early in last night’s episode, I wasn’t sure. I’d seen these characters and dramatic conflicts before. But, by the end, I wanted to see how Dev makes out as a pilot. The rest of it, I can kinda predict.
Tonight, we get Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism’s offering – the Doyles back in the sleuthing business in old sinjohns. It’s another show where you can see its television history. It’s been compared to the Rockford Files, aptly, but as homage rather than copycat.
Weather: Tourism ideal vs. actual
The Doyles do argumentative father and son well. And they place it in the glorious backdrop of St. John’s. I’ve wondered how much leeway they have to build into their shooting schedule to get all those sunny days. I can imagine cast and crew being woken up at dawn, after weeks off – “looks like a fine day, byes, let’s get at her!”
I lived in St. John’s a long time. I know summer fog and drizzle. I know early spring when you’re ready to gnaw your own leg off to get out of fog and snow and rain. But you are trapped.
Even if you had all the money in the world, planes aren’t flying, ferries aren’t sailing: the weather is too bad. We don’t see that weather on Republic of Doyle. And it is beautiful and awe-inspiring in its own right – once you stop trying to gnaw your foot off and look at it and feel it. But I forget that weather while watching RoD. I remember glorious days with sunshine reflecting off brightly painted old buildings, just like on the tv.
I stayed with my brother for a couple weeks once. I never thought of him as a reader, I was the “bookworm” in the family. But in his living room was a lovely big bookshelf that he had made, filled with books.
The largest single collection was Louis L’Amour paperback westerns. I was far too politically correct to ever have read a Louis L’Amour, but they were handy when I needed a book so I started my very first one. When my brother got home from work several hours later, I was just finishing it. I hadn’t moved from my chair. I read all the Louis L’Amours he had, averaging one a day.
My brother said what he liked about Louis L’Amour was the books were short, easy to read and told “a good story and you learn a lot.” If he wanted to know more about something he read in L’Amour, he’d go to the library or bookstore and look further. Louis L’Amour got rid of my academic and political snobbery. I continued reading his books – Westerns and adventures. They tell heroic tales of physical and emotional achievement. They include information on places and ways of doing things. Also they read quickly, keep you entertained, and pose questions about morality and human behaviour.
Other fiction does that too, but westerns slide it in without you even realizing until you find yourself pondering the dilemma of the hero after you’ve finished the book. Reading does not have to be work. It can and sometimes should be. Understanding the existential condition of humanity should not be reduced to simple dictums. Complexity needs to be examined. But sometimes you just want a nice untaxing read. What I learned is that Louis L’Amour gives you that and those existential questions too.
Both sides of Westerns
Then I moved on to other tales of the west. I read Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Doveand rediscovered Tomson Highway’s plays. I read Thomas King’s satirical look at movie Indians. I’d read academic literature on First Nation history, so now I read the cultural histories in fictional form. I watched old Western movies with a new eye, seeing how the cowboys were presented and the Indians. I watched new Westerns, seeing the shifts in perspective. The lore of our existence in popular culture for is situated in a time and place, both in the story and its telling. Both change with time and different narrators. Taken together, you get the fabric of our North American world – history and folklore, ideals and critiques.
My exploration of popular culture cowboys and Indians, armies and warriors led me to the most amazing book on the topic that I’ve ever read. Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star weaves all those threads of perspective, ‘reality’ and ‘belief,’ between its covers. It’s the story of the Battle of Little Big Horn from everybody’s point of view. It’s not an easy read, being kind of magic realism in style, but it’s riveting. It has to be, to keep straight who’s who and who’s telling the story when. Several years after reading it, I found the movie Son of a Morning Star in the library. I could not imagine a movie of that book. I watched, expecting the worst, and was pleasantly surprised. They managed to tell the story, in all its magical complexity, very well.
Last month, the new prime time tv programmes were rolled out. Many are good. They threw my life into chaos because I actually wanted to watch them.
Person of Interest, Prime Suspect and Pan Am are my new “can’t miss” tv. I’d seen ads for Person of Interest – wasn’t sure. Too many kinda spooky ‘person with special powers’ series in the past years. But Person of Interest has an interesting angle on it: a post-9/11 Big Brother analysis of “national security.”
Prime Suspect I was doubtful of. British series are usually done best by the British, and I didn’t like the idea of the wonderful Helen Mirren series being replicated, or mutilated, by Hollywood. But it isn’t. It stands on its own merits as does the star Maria Belo.
The ads for Pan Am were wonderful. Could the show live up to them? Yes. I’d feared a pale imitation of Mad Men, cashing in on the 1960s milieu evoked so wonderfully by it. (We’ve watched the first seasons of MM on Boxee.) Or superficial “coffee, tea or me?” T&A. But it’s a beautiful looking history and geography lesson with good stories and good acting.
I watched the premiere of The Playboy Club. Same ‘60s women-centred setting. Overtly T&A, fitting the subject matter. Hmm, wait and see was my opinion. No time – it was cancelled after three episodes! I was sorry because I have a soft spot for Eddie Cibrian who was the male star. I interviewed him when he was bad boy Matt Clark on Y&R and liked him. I was delighted to see him in a big prime time series.
Our favourites are still on and still good. House has had big changes and it’s still great. The CSI, Criminal Minds and Law & Order franchises (including L&A UK), Harry’s Law and the excellent Canadian Flashpoint. And now, new shows! It’s been quite a change in our household. We’d become accustomed to having the tv on the least annoying programme while we worked on computers. That was ok, except when you really wanted to watch something good and all that was on your 500 channel galaxy was America’s Got Talent and its clones.
“57 channels and nothin’ on”
I was ready to cancel cable – it was very expensive white noise. I took these pictures one evening last year when I’d really wanted to watch tv. The best thing I could find was Riverdance in Beijing on PBS. While good, it wasn’t what I wanted, so I just went to bed with a book. $100 a month for Rogers Cable basic HD package, and my entertainment was a novel borrowed, for free, from the library.
I can’t blame Rogers for network programming. But I can ask why they organize their channel packaging the way they do. You know there are shows you want to watch, but you have to pay extra for their channels. You get, ‘free’, a lot of channels that just slow down your guide scrolling. The Fireplace Channel. Rogers-owned sports teams channels. Shouldn’t they be specialty channels paid for by thems that want them?
Recently, my stepson hooked up a wire to our tv, without cable. We got in six channels clearly. Only CBC, our national broadcaster, was snowy. If I knew the networks would keep the quality and type of programming they introduced this fall, I’d cancel cable and rely on what we can get over the air. But I can’t be sure, so Rogers dodged a bullet.
In need of a book for bedtime reading, looking through bookshelves – and finding a Dick Francis mystery you haven’t read. That is true happiness.
I thought sadly that I’d read all of Dick Francis’ many novels. Then, twice in a couple months, when library books were finished and I searched my own books for something to tide me over, I found unread Dick Francis novels.
I love mystery novels. You get both a mystery and a glimpse into another world. With Francis, it’s many topics but always with some horse racing, whether steeplechase or flat. He was a top steeplechase rider for many years. Then he began writing about that world, wrapping a lot of horsey information in a good who-dun-it.
I’ve read that mystery novelists are accorded lesser status in the literary world than regular novelists. Like romance novelists, they are considered “genre literature”. I don’t agree with that difference in status ranking. In mysteries, I’ve explored human emotion and reactions, both good and evil, learned about subjects I’ve never really thought about before, and it’s all working toward an end – who did the dastardly deed.
Elizabeth George, Ian Rankin, Quentin Jardine, Michael Jecks, Martha Grimes, Andrew Greeley, Janet Evanovich, P. D. James – these are writers that I have devoured. All different in writing style, lead characters, subplots and settings. All have protagonists whose lives progress throughout the lifespan of the novels. With them, after randomly reading one of a series, I went back to the beginning and tried to read them sequentially. Among Canadian mystery writers I’ve discovered at the library are Lyn Hamilton and her archeological mysteries and the Murdoch books by Maureen Jennings.
Murdoch, a police series set in Victorian Toronto, has been very successfully adapted for television. The tv shows go beyond the books and I find them just as entertaining and insightful as the books themselves. Can’t say the same for the television adaptation of Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley series. I enjoy the Lynley shows, but they are not as rich as the books – truncated and not accurately reflective of the books’ characters.
I’m not fussy on the “cozies” – the Miss Marple-ish amateur sleuths (although I love the real Miss Marple). But I love some village series such as M. C. Beaton’s Highlands’ Hamish MacBeth books. I have no time for the young woman P.I. who never has any food in her house, but I make an exception for Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum. Tiresome are protagonists who put themselves in trouble because they insist on refusing help. I don’t like glib, wisecracking heroes or heroines. However, again, I love the originals of this persona in the novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and the incarnation by Robert B. Parker in his Spenser.
Twofer: the human condition and a puzzle
I like books that delve into the human, and societal, condition in their plot lines and characterizations. All the authors I mention above do that, in very different worlds. And, being mysteries, they add a second layer of information processing in figuring out who committed the crime and how they did it. They may be “genre” but it’s a genre that gives you two stories in one.
Above are other really good mystery novels by great jockeys.
The thing that annoyed me most about the movie Secretariat was that the horses playing him were not in the credits. In particular, the one who played him in close-ups was superb – playing to the camera, acting the ham. Just like the real Big Red, so those who knew him say. I hope I will learn his and the others’ names and more about them on the dvd.
Ok, that’s my criticism. Other than that, I loved the movie. It’s the story of Secretariat’s fabulous 1973 Triple Crown win, and the story of his owner Penny Chenery Tweedy. Now, I’m a Man o’ War girl when it comes to that important question – who was the greatest racehorse of the 20th century? It’s not a decision based on any real knowledge of thoroughbred racing, just that he was the first racehorse I knew anything about. I had a put-together model kit of him when I was a kid, and it caused me to find a book about him in the library. And, even if you’re in the Secretariat “greatest horse” camp, you can’t deny the magnificence of Man o’ War, the original “Big Red”. His stride, as marked out at the Kentucky Horse Park, is still the longest of any known horse, including Secretariat.
The 1973 Belmont
But that win by 31 lengths! Nothing has ever been seen like that. I didn’t see the actual race. I was living outside North America and didn’t have a tv set. I’ve watched replays since but, thrilling as even that is, I cannot imagine what it felt like to actually see the race not knowing what the outcome would be. By 1978, after Seattle Slew and Affirmed won back-to-back Triple Crowns, I felt that having a Triple Crown was pretty exciting but not particularly unusual. I never imagined that it would not be done again for so many years. No horse, before or since, has won even one of the individual races that make up the Triple Crown in such a spectacular fashion. Especially the Belmont, the longest and most grueling of the three. Watching him is like watching a horse fly. It’s magic and majesty and pure joy.
The sheer magnificence of Secretariat is why I didn’t find jarring the overvoice of a passage from the Book of Job at the movie’s beginning and end. Such beauty and strength as a horse possesses calls up reverential words and imagery. The solemnity and beauty of the words fit the magnificence of the animal, one of the most beautiful in creation.
After seeing the movie, I checked online reviews. My interpretation of the use of the Book of Job is at variance with most of those I read. Quite a big deal was made of the fact that director Randall Wallace is an outspoken Christian. I did not know that going in so it didn’t influence my viewing of the movie.
Oh Happy Day
Two other scenes of the movie are focused upon as evidence of the Christian message of the director and/or Disney Studio. The choice of Oh Happy Day, as music coming from the stable radio, and as the horses are coming down the final stretch in the Belmont. The first time, when it’s coming from the stable radio, I just heard it as a popular song by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, and fitting when everybody in the scene was happy and feeling good about Secretariat and his prospects. The second use of it, in the ultimate race, I found distracting just because it was loud and I’d have rather just heard the hooves pounding on the track. Music accompanying that beautiful sound is gilding the lily. Not necessary, not an improvement.
Two reviews stood out for me. One is by Steve Haskin in Bloodhorse Magazine. This is a fair and insightful review both about the movie and the story of Secretariat and his connections. He points out a number of inaccuracies and glossovers of actual fact. One he doesn’t mention is that the coin toss which decided Secretariat’s ownership was actually more complicated and dramatic. To save movie time, I suppose, it was abbreviated. Still tense with drama, but if you want to read the real story, look for The Secretariat Factor by Tom Kiernan (Doubleday 1979). That’s where I read it, but I’m sure it’s also told in other books.
The second review is by Andrew O’Hehir in Salon. He says that he wanted his review to be provocative and well, yes, it is. His reading of Secretariat is as “Tea Party-flavored” propaganda for a mythical American past when all was well. For this, he holds the director and Disney responsible for perpetuating the myths of nostalgia and inaccurate simplification. That, I believe, is hardly news. O’Hehir for sure has read Critical Theory and wanted to be sure that we all knew he had. The argument is along the lines that popular culture is a particularly effective way to create political or ideological propaganda because the consumers are entertained primarily and therefore unaware that they are being fed propaganda. Ok.
Can you, as does O’Hehir, read Secretariat as Christian right wing propaganda? Of course. Just as you can read iconoclast comic Dennis Leary’s tv drama Rescue Me as anti-Muslim propaganda. Everyone in North America developed a heightened pride in and respect for police officers and firefighters after 9/11. Leary became a well-known advocate for firefighters in thanks to them for their efforts after that tragedy. The tragedy was caused by anti-American extremists – Muslim extremists. So do the math the same way, and you can consider Rescue Me propaganda just as easily as you can consider Secretariat right-wing Christian propaganda.
The movie Secretariat and real-life
O’Hehir argues that the movie’s negligible mention of the social and political upheaval in early 70s America is evidence of its propaganda/mythologizing of the past. Maybe it is. Maybe, too, those events didn’t directly affect the lives of the people whose story this is except through the schoolgirl political activism that is shown. Like O’Hehir, I lived through that time period, but my conclusions on the inclusion of sociopolitical context differ from his. I don’t think you need to cram in historical context just because it exists. Not if it doesn’t fit with your characters’ story.
As a teenager at that time, I was aware of what was happening in the US. I was active about it at about the same level of political acuity as Mrs. Tweedy’s daughter. My social concern got about the same kind of attention from my parents as did hers. It wasn’t that my family was living in a rarefied zone of privilege and wealth.Nor were they unaware of political and social events. It was that they had their hands full just getting on with their own lives without worrying about other people and cerebral political notions.
I think perhaps the same thing would have been true for the Tweedy-Chenery family. It may not be any more complicated than that. Mrs. Tweedy was a housewife with four kids and ailing parents. She had enough on her plate. If I asked my mother, I think I’d get the same answer.
A story of horses
Anyway, I loved the movie Secretariat. Steve Haskin said that the actor horses didn’t “capture the majesty and physical presence” of Secretariat but that there “isn’t a horse alive who could’ve done justice to him”. Secretariat is a feel-good story with a happy ending (except, of course, for Secretariat’s main competitor, the magnificent Sham, who made him run the race he did). And Secretariat’s story is not told in its totality in the movie. How could it be? What is told, however, is worth watching – and cheering and crying.
Newfoundland Mi'kmaq, family history, Coronation Street, etc.