Pulitzer Prize–winner Smiley's first novel for young readers is a lyrical meditation on horses, families and the vicissitudes of peer relationships among girls. Twelve-year-old Abby lives on a California horse farm with her evangelical parents. It is the mid-1960s, and references to Dusty Springfield records and portable hi-fis contrast with the pastoral setting, where the struggle is mainly between Abby and “Ornery George,” one of the gelding horses (all the horses are named George or Jewel by Abby's father to eschew unnecessary attachments). A wise and kindly horse trainer eventually teaches Abby how to temper Ornery George, paralleling the nuanced lessons she learns about her relationship with her father, his fraught dealings with Abby's older brother, Danny, as well as the bullying by the “Big Four” girls at school. As might be expected from the skilled hands of Smiley (A Thousand Acres), there are additional synchronous story lines, such as the ways an unexpected and spirited colt named Jack becomes accepted into the human and horse families. Many will find it difficult to say goodbye to Abby, Jack and especially to Ornery George. Ages 10–up. (Sept.)
Children's Literature - Jeanna Sciarrotta
Abby Lovitt and her family buy horses, train them, and sell them off. Because every horse is on the ranch for only a short amount of time, Abby is not allowed to name them. Instead, her father refers to them only as Georges and Jewels. It is Abby's job to make sure that "a little girl" can ride the horses, and she shines in this role until "Ornery" George comes along. Abby just cannot get a handle on how to train him. Along with her tiring and hardworking life on the ranch, Abby must also deal with the drama that is seventh grade, complete with the popular girl clique, rumors, and the occasional boy drama. Abby longs for a solid friendship that she can count on in her tumultuous life, in which nothing can be counted on to stick around. Not her brother, who her stubborn father kicks out of the house, not the horses that are in and out every six months, and not her best friend, who seems to be getting closer and closer to the new girl in school. Jane Smiley's novel is not quite up to the young adult standards that most teenagers gravitate towards. However, it will pique the interest of the young farm girl looking for a kindred spirit to share a sense of companionship with. The novel jumps between Abby's home and school life with a choppiness that is never quite resolved in this novel, and this will confuse or put off many young readers. Reviewer: Jeanna Sciarrotta
School Library Journal
Gr 5–8—A quiet novel about the relationships surrounding 12-year-old Abby on her family's rural horse ranch in 1960s California. Due to her parents' strict religious views (no TV or rock music), Abby often feels like an outcast in her small seventh-grade class and she is often subjected to ridicule by the popular girls. She finds solace in working with the horses (there are numerous detailed scenes of riding, jumping, and grooming) with the exception of Ornery George. To avoid attachment and to ready the animals for sale, her father names all their horses George or Jewel. Meanwhile, the family is dealing with the estrangement of 16-year-old Danny, who left home after an argument. Abby's voice tends to be far more intuitive and insightful than one would expect of her age, especially as she discerns the nuances and tensions in her parents' relationship. The occasional anachronistic word or phrase such as "wandering around the strip mall" (a term generally not in use until the 1980s) tend to distract. Ultimately, the subtle shifts in attitude that occur may be appreciated by adults but lost on the young readers for whom the book is intended. Intricate pen-and-ink drawings of horse equipment at the beginning of each chapter give the book an old-fashioned feel.—Madeline J. Bryant, Los Angeles Public Library
Abby's father names all the male horses that come through their farm George and all the female horses Jewel, and Abby knows it's to keep the family from becoming too attached to them. Training and reselling horses is their business, and good horses never stay with them long. Especially now that Abby's brother has left home, her helping in training them is important: The biggest market is for horses "even a little girl can ride." But the horse Abby nicknames Ornery George can't be ridden by a little girl-at least not by Abby, no matter how hard she tries. Her father's methods don't work; her uncle's are catastrophic. Pulitzer Prize winner Smiley's first book for younger readers is lush with the love of horses, old, young, cantankerous and wonderful. The difficulties Abby has at home and at school pale by comparison to her struggles with Ornery George, which makes her final victory even more sweet. It's the minute details of work with the horses that make this book sing, and horse-mad readers will snap it up. (Historical fiction. 10-14)
From the Publisher
Starred Review, Publishers Weekly, July 20, 2009:
"A lyrical meditation on horses, families, and the vicissitudes of peer relationships among girls."
Review, Booklist, September 15, 2009:
"[A] quiet, psychologically attuned youth debut."
Review, The Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), October 3, 2009:
"'The Georges and the Jewels' is filled with fascinating details about the care and training of horses, and Abby is a refreshing heroine in today's snark-filled times."
Review, Chicago Sun-Times, October 18, 2009:
"Smiley’s intricate and sophisticated knowledge of horses shines throughout this book, making it a guaranteed winner for horse-loving youngsters."
Review, LATimes.com, September 27, 2009:
"I have never admired [Smiley's] writing as much as I do in the first of what promises to be a series of books for children...'The Georges and the Jewels' can easily take its place on the shelf along with the great horse stories of childhood."
Review, The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, October 2009:
"Readers...will be happy to mount up and ride along."
Read an Excerpt
Sometimes when you fall off your horse, you just don't want to get right back on. Let's say he started bucking and you did all the things you knew to do, like pull his head up from between his knees and make him go forward, then use a pulley rein on the left to stop him. Most horses would settle at that point and come down to a walk. Then you could turn him again and trot off--it's always harder for the horse to buck at the trot than at the lope. But if, right when you let up on the reins, your horse put his head between his knees again and took off bucking, kicking higher and higher until he finally dropped you and went tearing off to the other end of the ring, well, you might lie there, as I did, with the wind knocked out of you and think about how nice it would be not to get back on, because that horse is just dedicated to bucking you off.
So I did lie there, looking up at the branches of the oak tree that grew beside the ring, and I did wait for Daddy to come trotting over with that horse by the bridle, and I did stare up at both their faces, the face of that horse flicking his ears back and forth and snorting a little bit, and the face of my father, red-cheeked and blue-eyed, and I did listen to him say, "Abby? You okay, honey? Sure you are. I saw you bounce! Get up, now."
"How am I going to tell those folks who are looking to buy these horses that a little girl can ride them, if you don't get up and ride them?"
I sat up. I said, "I don't know, Daddy." My elbow hurt, but not too badly. Otherwise I was okay.
I stood up, and he brushed off the back of my jeans. Then he tossed me on the horse again.
Some horses buck you off. Some horses spook you off--they see something scary and drop a shoulder and spin and run away. Some horses stop all of a sudden, and there you are, head over heels and sitting on the ground. I had a horse rear so high once that I just slid down over her tail and landed in the grass easy as you please, watching her run back to the barn. I started riding when I was three. I started training horses for my dad when I was eight. I wasn't the only one--my brother, Danny, was thirteen at the time, and he did most of the riding (Kid's Horse for Sale), but I'm the only one now.
Which is not to say that there aren't good horses and fun horses. I ride plenty of those, too. But they don't last, because Daddy turns those over fast. I had one a year ago, a sweet bay mare. We got her because her owner had died and Daddy picked her up for a song from the bank. I rode her every day, and she never put a foot wrong. Her lope was as easy as flying. One of the days she was with us, I had a twenty-four-hour virus, so when I went out to ride, I tacked her up and took her down to the crick at the bottom of the pasture, out of sight of the house.
I knew Daddy had to go into town and would be gone for the afternoon, so when I got down there, I just took off the saddle and hung it over a tree limb, and the bridle, too, and I lay down in the grass and fell asleep. I knew she would graze, and she did for a while, I suppose. But when I woke up (and feeling much better, thank you), there she was, curled up next to me like a dog, kind of pressed against me but sweet and large and soft. I lay there feeling how warm she was and smelling her fragrance, and I thought, I never heard of this before. I don't know why she did that, but now when Daddy tells me that horses only know two things, the carrot and the stick, and not to fill my head with silly ideas about them, I just remember that mare (she had a star shaped like a triangle and a little snip down by her left nostril). We sold her for a nice piece of change within a month, and I wish I knew where she was.
But Daddy names all the mares Jewel and all the geldings George, and I can hardly remember which was which after a while.
The particular George who bucked me off had a hard mouth. I did the best I could with him for another twenty minutes, but Daddy said that probably he was going to have to get on him himself, which meant that we weren't going to turn this one over fast, because a little girl couldn't ride him yet. Which meant that Daddy was in bad mood for the rest of the day.
We took the George back up to the barn, and while Daddy threw out the hay, I brushed the George off. He didn't mind, but he didn't love it like some of them do. Then I picked out his feet and took him out and put him into one of the big corrals. We didn't keep horses in stalls unless we had to, because Daddy said that they did better outside anyway, and if you kept them in stalls, well, then, you spent your life cleaning stalls rather than riding. Was that what I wanted?
I always said, "No, Daddy," and he ruffled my hair.
In the winter, though, it bothered me to think of them huddled out in the rain, their tails into the wind and their heads down. Of course that was what horses were meant to do, and ours had heavy coats, but I would lie awake when it rained in the night, wishing for it to stop.
It was worse in Oklahoma.
Oklahoma was where we came from, where Daddy and Mom grew up and had Danny, then me. We moved to California in 1957, when I was four and a half. I could barely remember living there, though we went back once or twice a year to see my grandparents and buy some horses. In Oklahoma, there could be real rain, and real snow, and real ice. Daddy had seen a horse slide right down a hill once, just couldn't stop himself, went down like he was on skis and right over the edge of a crick, fell on the ice, and had to be pulled out with a tractor. Couldn't be saved. At least in California we didn't have ice.
From the Hardcover edition.