Come Down the Mountain – Vian Smith

Most fiction from the pony book genre starts with a boy or girl who desperately wants a horse. He or she usually acquires a horse. And proceeds to successfully tame, ride, show or race the horse.

Come Down the Mountain is a bit different than the norm in several ways. The most obvious is the dust jacket artwork. There’s nary a horse to be found, a quite unusual approach by the publishers!

Doubleday 1967 American hardcover edition of "Come Down the Mountain" by Vian Smith
Doubleday 1967 American edition

I went out of my way to get the first US edition of this book as I was intrigued by the cover. Even without a horse depicted, it feels right. The book is about a village where most of the property is owned by an eccentric landlord, a Bassett, who lives in a house high on a hill above the village. The dust jacket gives a strong feeling of the exalted landlord and the lowly villagers. The graveyard on the left reminds us that this village has a history. The backward leaning houses could illustrate how villagers closed their minds to an animal’s suffering. Yet, the vibrant green and blue in the image has a promise of spring and change behind it….

Our protagonist, Brenda, a teenage schoolgirl, does not immediately appear to fall in line with the norm either. It’s quickly made clear that she is overweight, a bit of a misfit at school and likes animals, but there’s no hint of her having any lifelong desire to own or ride a horse.

However, Brenda is a girl who knows her own mind. The old landlord has died and the property is contested. With the property, however, comes a horse. An ex-racehorse. And no one is there to care for this horse who has grazed his pasture until it is mostly mud. Brenda worries about the arrival of winter. She feels certain the animal can’t survive.

In her heart, she knows that leaving any animal to suffer is a horrible wrong. But no one wants to do anything, for fear of what a new Bassett might do when the will is settled. Too many villagers live in houses or on land owned by the powerful Bassett family and no one wants to incur Bassett ire.

Brenda initially tries to convince her father that something must be done, only to meet with failure. Her father is not only worried about the new owners, but about the cost of keeping a horse. It’s clear, however, that he really wishes he could do this for his daughter. Still worried, Brenda visits the horse, finding that the horse is in pain and badly in need of a farrier. Her father also sees the horse when he goes after Brenda and his heart starts to change.

He then goes to his father-in-law to ask for help, and is soundly rejected. Yet, as it transpires, the story of the horse starts eating into Brenda’s grandfather’s heart as well. It becomes clear that the plight of the horse has been a weight on everyone’s mind.

This is really less of a horse story and more of a people story. The horse’s rescue serves as a catalyst to free the village from the belief that they have to be subservient to a landlord. As Brenda proceeds to care for the horse, her school friends start to see her as someone different than just “Fatso.” Brenda, in acting and rescuing the horse, finds confidence in herself.

Throughout, there’s no hint of any plans for the horse other than caring for him, which is different and refreshing. I loved seeing the close relationship Brenda had with her father, and also her grandfather. Even her mother, concerned they simply can’t afford to care for the horse, comes around. Brenda’s relationships with her school friends have an all too real awkwardness that a teenager often encounters.

Naturally, the new owner of the horse turns up eventually to claim his property. The horse is his, even if it’s of no value. But all comes right in the end.

A lovely read, with a similar feel to classic horse stories like National Velvet and My Friend Flicka. According to a review on Amazon.com, this story was based on a horse Vian Smith actually knew, though in real life, the attempt to save the horse was unsuccessful.

Come Down the Mountain
1967 first U.S. edition by Doubleday & Company, Inc.
written by Vian Smith (1919–1969)
jacket art by William Shields (1925–2010)

The author, Vian Smith lived in Totnes, a small town in Devon, England with his wife, five children and his horses. Smith was one of a very few professional writers to hold a Jockey Club permit to train steeplechasers. In all he wrote over twenty books of which 13 were horse related. His books contain a great deal of perception about human relationships.

You may not have heard of the illustrator William Shields before, but in truth, he was a fine artist! For thirty-five years, Bill produced some of the country’s best illustrations: fresh, playful, loose and innovative. His illustrations were coveted by such clients as Bantam Books, Time Life and Macmillan Publishing Co., and were awarded numerous gold medals by the Societies of Illustrators in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the Houston Artists Guild.

You can see some of his lovely abstract paintings here and here.

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