Where did my friend, Flicka, go? I mean, “My Friend Flicka,” the classic horse story. I can’t even find my copy of the biography of Mary O’Hara, who wrote that beloved book that became a series (“Thunderhead,” and “Green Grass of Wyoming”), a movie and a television series. If you look through the lists of “best books of the West” and “Western authors,” you won’t find her. Is it because she’s female or because her book is labeled juvenile?
I’m not much for the kind of feminism that pushes the primacy of all women in all circumstances. Nor am I one to sneer at young adult books (although lately there seems to be an unseemly rush to monetize the category). But this Wyoming tale of the archetypal family (tough competent dad; educated compassionate mother; sibs alternating between support and competition) centered on a beloved animal -- I DEARLY loved that book and was formed by it. Sure, maybe in literary terms Steinbeck’s “The Red Pony” or even Stegner’s “Carrion Colt” were more intense and skillful. But Mary O’Hara must be accounted for.
Born in 1895, she got her start as a screenwriter in the silent film era. (One of her credits was a 1925 version of “Braveheart.”) After an early troubled marriage, she eventually married again to Helge Sture-Vasa, a Swede who had worked horses for the US. Army and clearly was the model for the militaristic “Rob” in “My Friend Flicka.” They bought an historic ranch between Laramie and Cheyenne where they raised sheep until the Great Depression, and then horses, followed by a summer camp for privileged boys from back East. Out West, you do what you have to -- so back to the typewriter during WWII. By 1946 when the third book of the Wyoming series was published, they were able to sell the Wyoming ranch and buy a ranch in California.
Somehow that ended the marriage and Mary went back East to Connecticut where she went on writing. She died at age 95 in Chevy Chase, Maryland. By that time she had shown talent in composing and producing a musical called “The Catch Colt,” which is not to be confused with the novel with that name by Sid Larson, a cousin of James Welch, Jr. Mary’s father, the Reverend Dr. Reese Fell Alsop, was an Episcopal clergyman but I didn’t see any reference to Alsops in Montana. However, her sister, Gulielma Fell was also a writer: “My Chinese Days.” Another Reese Fell Alsop wrote “George and his Horse Go West” which is a kid book, but I know nothing else about him. He may be the same as the doctor of internal medicine who died in 2006, aged 93, and who acted besides writing books. In that case, he may be related to Mary. What a family!
I don’t remember the three “Flicka” books with much detail, but what struck me even as a child was a sort of aura of intellectual knowingness and rectitude imposed on a landscape and economic situation of considerable hardship. It was about achievement in the face of adversity, pride of attitude. It was a sort of family version of “Out of Africa.” Kenya-syndrome where educated aristocrats tried to tame the raw planet. (For Dinesen the indigenous people became family, but in O’Hara’s books there are no Indians.) Colonialism is such an object of hate and resentment now. Probably the whole dynamic needs to be revisited a little more calmly, but also there could profitably be an investigation of the New England elite colonializing the Rocky Mountain West, with a personal sense of the dramatic that pulled them towards Hollywood and publishing.
Certainly this ethic is in my deep consciousness, even though my real roots are modestly educated homesteaders and orchardists. Mary O’Hara and I share an arrogance that carries us over rough patches. Very useful. But also often ridiculous.
Other things I absorbed include the compulsion to save the beloved, like Ken (Mary’s son was called that) lying in the creek all night, holding Flicka’s head out of water. She made such a thing seem admirable when, in fact, it is deeply unreasonable. Her handling of sex was, well, equine. Thunderhead is a stallion, valued for being that, and in one memorable episode Ken unreasonably manages to stick on the back of Thunderhead while he rounds up his harem of mares. If you’ve ever witnessed this process, it’s a matter of kicking, biting, head down at the ground, necking and then mounting of the mares. Dramatic dragon sex. But it gets past the censors.
One wonders whether there would be a reward to writing a new novel that gathers up these same elements but treats them in more than a pop best seller mode. It might take a new Stegner, but a female one who is not so protective of the “lady” as Stegner tended to be. Katharine Hepburn crossed with Barbara Stanwyck. Oh, it’s so much fun to play such games. The male West Lit people seem to indulge in it a bit, after a few drinks in all-male company, but the females are solemn and upright in the missionary position. Once in a while Hollywood escapes that template but then they always go to whores. They love whores. The female ones. The male ones are . . . nevermind.
Identity vs. culture vs. environment are classic -- oh, PRIMAL -- elements of story as they interact against or with each other. They guide us in our ordinary lives. Nassim Taleb argues that too many people don’t have enough hardship and sudden crisis in their lives, and therefore are bushwhacked when things go bad and tend to whine instead of doing something -- anything. Like considering safeguards. That’s pretty cruel but there’s some truth to it.
Somewhere else I explain how my acting class used to play, “What’s Your Price?” in order to steel themselves for life in the theatre. My price has been, “would you give up the east slope of the Rockies in northern Montana?” Luckily, though I’ve paid that price (which was very much connected to O’Hara’s novelized fight to stay on her ranch in Wyoming) it has turned out to redeemable. I returned. I write. I’m still somehow connected to the novel version of Mary O’Hara, walking around with her cat on her shoulder. Remember “Paulie?” Wasn't that the cat's name?
Where's that damn book?