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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Goble, Paul. Mystic Horse; ad. and illus. by Paul Goble.
HarperCollins, 2003 [34p]
Library ed. ISBN 0-06-029814-6 $17.89
Trade ed. ISBN 0-06-029813-8 $16.99
Gr. 3-5

Charged with even more motion and emotion (“Abandoned, lonely, unloved!/ . . . There is an old horse in our midst/ Who is without an owner,/ Abandoned, lonely, unloved!”) than the stunning Girl Who Loved Wild Horses, which won the 1979 Caldecott Medal, this book moves beyond kinship with the animal world to a cycle of death and resurrection through animals’ kinship with the spirit world. Skillfully adapted from a Pawnee story collected by George Bird Grinnell and published in 1889, the story portrays a poor orphan lad whose kindness to a cast-off horse draws jeering from the well-mounted warriors in his tribe. In face of an enemy attack, however, the boy obeys the sickly animal’s command to cover it with river mud and ride four times into battle counting coup with a willow stick. The horse, magically renewed as a prancing steed, is then killed when the boy disobeys with a fifth charge. Grieving deeply afterwards throughout a heavy rainstorm, the boy sees the horse rise, healed, and rides him home, along with a herd of wild horses, to lead his people and care for his old grandmother “for all her years.” In responsibly citing the story’s source, Goble acknowledges the fact that he has “had to make changes from the original because certain aspects do not translate well into today’s thinking”—perhaps the boy’s killing of the enemy on whom he counts coup, and more probably the butchering of the horse by the enemy when it falls after the fifth charge. And from the tale that Grinnell heard during the time he spent with the Pawnee in Nebraska, Goble has omitted an earlier episode in which the rejuvenated horse carries the boy toward a buffalo herd to kill a spotted calf, for whose skin the chief has promised his daughter in marriage. The result of this selection is a shorter but sharply focused tale. Goble’s hope that “the spirit of the story is still there” is assuredly fulfilled in his dramatic yet sensitive reconstruction.

Though the story itself has deep appeal, it is the artistic contextualization that gives perspective on the tale as part of a “horse culture” rather than a piece of isolated lore. Each illustrative feature adds to the cultural grounding. Eerie blue-and-white endpapers portray the mythic appearance of horses from frothy waves into the green-and-yellow sunshined world, whereupon they turn into a variegated herd thundering across the half-title page. Thus readers witness the “spirit horses, Arusa, surge up from the womb of Mother Earth, through the waters of a sacred lake, to spread out and replenish the wild herds.” Traditional designs decorate the copyright information, two pages of meticulous background information on the tribe, and the beginning and end of the legend, which is clean in both verbal and visual composition.

The illustrated scenes are dynamically paced and emotionally expressive, with startling contrasts—one double-page spread is vertically barred with birch trees, another shadowed with a massive blue-black thunderhead generating metallic streaks of rain over the huddled figure of the boy. A stylized pool of blood, with a butterfly hovering close by, swirls from the dead horse’s mouth as the boy throws himself over his fallen mount; later, as the boy hugs the resurrected horse, pools of rain swirl over the entire page. This is one of Goble’s deepest creations—durable enough to support imagined journeys of courage and transformation again and again, alone or aloud.

--Betsy Hearne, Consulting Editor

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Cover illustration by Paul Goble from Mystic Horse 2003. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

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This page was last updated on July 1, 2003.