Hobby Horse Hill came into my possession by way of my mother, who herself had read it as a girl. At perhaps eight, I discovered it in a box with dozens of her other childhood favorites. Of all of them, only Hobby Horse Hill became important to me, so much so that I read it dozens of times. At one point I could recite the entire opening chapter by heart. Even now, certain lines or scenes will occur to me spontaneously: a sudden embarrassment, for example, will bring to mind the idea of having “the grace to be ashamed,” which one character says approvingly to another, and which I thought, at eight or nine, was romantic.
I’ve always been interested in what one might call “personal classics”—books that don’t belong to any canon, books that find us through coincidence, books that are obscure for some reason, or are, in some cases, “bad.” Books that, despite all this, loom largest in our minds, exist on our literary map as cities, not towns. For me, Hobby Horse Hill is such a book. After nearly two decades had gone by without my reading it, however, it was hard to remember why it had once meant so much to me.
Last month I ordered the book, long out of print, online. A week later it arrived: the same cheap paperback 1963 edition that I’d read as a child (it was first published in 1939). Lavinia R. Davis, who today is far from famous, is the author. I sat down to re-read Hobby Horse Hill in the hopes of explaining my childhood obsession to myself. Despite our long separation, the book still felt familiar: each line felt right, somehow, as if no other line could possibly have gone in its place. Davis wrote in that formal, simple, stilted, adverb-and-adjective-laden, third-person prose that exemplifies many children’s books from the first half of the last century. “The train swung round the curve over the burning rails,” it begins. “Theresa White sat very still with her blue linen coat folded neatly over her arm, her small overnight bag in her hand.” Terry, as it turns out, is going to visit her cousins, the Wades, for an entire summer while her fancy parents travel in Europe. Terry herself is fancy—fancier than Rod and Kate Wade, a boy and a girl around Terry’s age who are “wild” and, more importantly, love horses. The plot of the book revolves around the mysterious disappearance of a mare named Cassandra and the subsequent finding of Cassandra. But the plot is not important. What matters is Terry, and the way she is characterized by Davis. Here’s an example:
Terry got up and wondered what she ought to put on. Finally she dressed in her blue play suit that was like Kate’s, only new and clean. It fitted beautifully, and it made Terry feel comfortable to be dressed like Kate, only better.
[Terry] could feel the hot, embarrassed red creeping up inside her pajama collar. It was all luck that she hadn’t told Pam Anderson . . . She’d almost asked Pam to complain to her father! . . . Terry cringed at the thought of how much the joke would have been on her if she’d complained about her own aunt. [Yes, there is, delightfully, a character in the book named Pam Anderson.]
And here’s a third:
She stood there for a moment looking at the brown canvas wall. Then slowly big, hot tears traced a dreary little pattern down her cheeks. She was a coward and a failure and she knew it. The Wades were careless and their clothes were queer, but they could ride and saddle a horse and do things.
Simply put, over the course of Hobby Horse Hill, Terry does a lot of messing up. She canters ahead on a trail ride, despite the warnings of her cousins, and accidentally tramples a poor little girl’s doll, which she and her cousins then have to replace. She doesn’t secure a horse in cross-ties, and the horse bolts out of the stable; her cousins have to catch the horse and fix the garden before their father sees. She gets caught in a thunderstorm with her youngest cousin Johnny, whom she is supposed to be watching; she wasn’t supposed to take him out. She won’t drop the curb on a horse that hates the curb, and the horse bucks her off. In general, Terry is horrifyingly stubborn, incapable, and snobby—a combination that results in her near-constant humiliation, during the first part of the book.
The particular feeling that washed over me as I re-read Hobby Horse Hill was one of uneasy, unwanted self-recognition. It was slowly, and then suddenly, clear to me why I was fascinated with this book as a child: I would have hated Terry while simultaneously believing myself to be just like her. I, too, rode horses. I, too, was easily scared—of horror films, of empty houses, of The Wizard of Oz, of all things. I thought I lacked the bravery of the other children at the barn, the girls who traveled in a little pack and clambered onto any horse they could and yelled and smacked their horses affectionately on the rump and collared each other around the neck. They would jump over anything; I dreaded the littlest cross-rail. I rode because my mother did, and I traveled to and from the barn with her; I never made a friend there. Outside the world of horses, I was equally shy. And, more importantly, I was inept in practical matters. I felt I was constantly doing simple things incorrectly. I cried easily and then berated myself for crying. That sort of thing. There was a great divide between the sort of child I wanted to be—one of the Rods and Kates of the world, the easily self-confident, laid-back experts—and the sort of child I feared I was: a worrier, a crier, an incompetent but overly competitive outsider, one who was definitively—to use a word that Davis employs over and over—a sissy.
I did not think, when I nostalgically purchased Hobby Horse Hill, that it would offer me the sort of flashback into my own childhood that it did. Nor did I think that I would feel compelled to confront the secret self I thought I had successfully buried somewhere around eighteen, the self that emerges infrequently in my adult life when I feel afraid of what is new or unfamiliar.
But there I was. The feelings I had upon reading my old favorite weren’t entirely cozy. That said, what pleases me about the book as an adult is probably the same thing that pleased me as a child: at the story’s end, Terry saves the day. She loses her fear and insecurity, her brittleness: “A few months ago, weeks even, she would have been afraid to take that jump alone. But now she could manage, she and Frosty; and she knew it without being told.” Terry becomes the book’s hero. It is Terry who discovers Cassandra’s whereabouts. It is Terry who learns, at the end of the book, that her parents will allow her to return to Hobby Horse Hill the following summer. Upon hearing the news, the Wade family celebrates:
Terry hardly finished the letter. “I’m going to be here next summer!” she said. “Oh, Aunt Louisa! May I really stay?” Aunt Louisa hugged her as though she had been Johnny. “Of course,” she said. “You darling! We were perfectly delighted when we got your father’s letter.” Kate shrieked, and then hugged Terry till her shoulders ached. Johnny asked questions, shouted, and tried to turn cartwheels all at the same time. For a moment Rod didn’t say anything, and then he shouted just as loud as Johnny. “Hot diggety,” he said. “That is swell. You’re the best guest we’ve ever had in this house. Ever!”
Pathos isn’t quite the right word. The disgrace, the sheer pathetic-ness I felt at imagining myself, at age nine, earnestly reveling in Terry’s newfound competence and popularity, is embarrassing enough to make me shudder. Reading it was like seeing a home movie of myself hamming it up in a play. Or stumbling across my middle-school diary. I skimmed the last page of Hobby Horse Hill, closed the book, and became overwhelmed by a succession of memories of all the little humiliations I suffered throughout my childhood—those memories you suppress and suppress until they spring out at you like a jack-in-the-box, usually at inopportune moments: while you are waiting to meet a blind date; while you are preparing for a public speech; while you are tentatively stretching toward something outside of your routine.
However. I can also see the value that a book like Hobby Horse Hill would have had for a kid like me. I can see its usefulness. I don’t begrudge my nine-year-old self the right to fantasize about overcoming shyness, or being well-liked or confident; it must have been a release to imagine these things. And perhaps, in some way, Hobby Horse Hill also served as a guide for me. This is the particular power of a book: to guide, to provide options for how to exist in the world, to release us just for a moment from the casual traumas of childhood (and adulthood, too). I grow increasingly fearful that this power is denied to children who don’t love reading—and there are more and more of them; as a professor, I meet them each semester in my classes. Television shows, movies, video games, and the virtual Las Vegas of the Internet deny children the right to fully imagine themselves into a narrative: the visuals are already supplied, and ordinary children do not, typically, look like Californian child actors.
If I ever have children, I will give them Hobby Horse Hill and then hope they won’t like it as much as I did, or at least that they won’t relate to it as I did, or for the same reasons. But I’ll also hope they find other books, meaningful to them for their own reasons: books that fill whatever needs they have as nothing else can. I hope they’ll build their own canon, by discovering their own personal classics.