An Adolescent's Best Friend: The Roles of Animals in Lynn Hall's Fiction
Animals often play an important role in adolescent lives, so it is not surprising that they appear in many young adult novels. However, little has been written about the YA fiction usually categorized as "animal stories";with a few exceptions, such discussion is typically brief, emphasizing the positive consequences of a loyal and devoted relationship between a young person and an animal without considering the variations and implications of these alliances.
No author of YA fiction writes about animals more than Lynn Hall; she has included them in over half of her eighty-some books. Although this scope alone justifies taking a closer look at how Hall uses animals in her fiction, such an exploration can serve not only to yield insights into the work of a prolific and popular YA writer but also to provide a lens through which to view other YA animal stories. Many of Hall's animal stories are intended for younger readers. This article discusses only her animal fiction for young adults.
As Hall's autobiographical books Lynn Hall's Dog Stories and Tazo and Me indicate, much of her own life centers on horses and dogs; and both appear regularly in her fiction, almost always to the exclusion of other kinds of animals, either domestic or wild. However, these horses and dogs function in diverse ways: they may serve as no more than a convenient plot complication and no less than the story's shaping force. Where they are central to the story, their relationship with the protagonist ranges widely in nature and complexity from closest companion to most intractable opponent.
Animals as Background
The least complex relationships between Hall's adolescent protagonists and her fictional horses and dogs occur when the animal plays a peripheral role in the novel, providing only a plot device or background color. In these cases, the story's complications and resolution develop out of the protagonist's interactions with people instead of animals. For example, in Dennison's Daughter Sandy loves her horse Charlie, but Charlie provides little in the story except an alibi for Sandy's trysts with Lonnie, a married man. The focus here is upon Sandy's bridging the gap between herself and her inarticulate father and upon Sandy's learning to distinguish between love and sexual attraction.
The horses in Flowers of Anger help to cement a friendship between Carey and Ann. When Ann's horse is killed by a malicious neighbor, however, Ann becomes embittered and spiteful, and Carey finds that she must distance herself from Ann. Flowers of Anger explores not a relationship between an adolescent and a horse but the meaning and fragility of friendship.
When an animal remains on the margins of Hall's novels, the protagonist usually lives in a world where people rather than an animal provide a listening ear and emotional nurture. The young person resolves his or her problems with the help of a family member or friend, and the animals do not significantly affect the outcome of the story. Other examples of Hall's use of animals in this way include Flying Changes , Half the Battle , Letting Go , Murder at the Spaniel Show , and The Secret of Stone house .
In novels such as Riff, Remember , To Catch a Tartar , and Stray , the animals move from the periphery of events to the very center, with their adventures comprising the main plot. As they roam or are passed from owner to owner, their fate is what moves the story forward. In each case, a horse or dog in dangerous circumstances is befriended by a young human being, but the human being's relationship with the animal is not a key element in the plot. Even when an animal helps to redeem a troubled adolescent, as in To Catch a Tartar , the story's main tension relies on the animal's adventures, not the young person's development.
Other Hall animal novels follow the archetypal romance pattern that Northrup Frye has described in Anatomy of Criticism (pp. 186-206) , stories in which the protagonist undertakes a quest and emerges a stronger and happier person. Many of Hall's animal "romances" fit the category described by Donelson and Nilsen as "adventure/accomplishment" stories:First, the young and innocent person is separated from the nurturing love of family and friends . . . during a test of courage and stamina. In the final stage the young person is reunited with former friends and family in a new role of increased status. (p. 127)
Hall's "accomplishment" romances vary this formula in two ways: a horse or dog is at the heart of the test, and her adolescent protagonists are not so much separated from the love of family and friends as lacking it at the outset, adrift in a forlorn and bleakly difficult world. They are loners and lonely, rarely allowed the innocence and security ideally associated with youth. Their parents (commonly separated or divorced) are often negligent and insensitive, sometimes even harsh or abusive. Most of the boys struggle with agonizing doubts about their masculinity; the girls, about their ability to attract boys. Their interactions with peers serve only to deepen their isolation: the boys are taunted by brasher males about their lack of daring-do, and the girls are caught up in endless competition with other girls for social status.
Nor is there solace to be gained through relationships between the sexes, which are often described in terms of pursuit, with the women in particular doing the"hunting" -- although both men and women are captured as "prizes." Rigid social codes govern who can pair up with whom: "Any new boy was interesting, until he turned out to be too young or too old, or in a higher social level, out of . .. reach" ( The Shy Ones , p. 83 ). And once "caught," the men usually betray the women, exploiting them before moving on to the next chase. Only one of Hall's animal novels, The Shy Ones , depicts an unequivocally satisfying outcome for an adolescent male-female courtship.
March Halsey in Halsey's Pride is typical of Hall's unhappy protagonists:Inside me was a pool of love that I carried always, feeling the weight of it and needing to pour it out on someone or something who would want it, someone who would long to have it as much as I long to give it. (p. 20)
In Hall's animal romances, the recipient of this aching "weight" is a horse or dog, not a human. The story line is fairly consistent from novel to novel: a lonely adolescent befriends an animal in dire straits whose care demands extraordinary emotional and physical resources. The quest (or test) centers on the adolescent's attempt to achieve some sort of victory involving the animal.
Usually the protagonist is successful, and the relationship between the adolescent and the horse or dog ends on a note of triumph, with acclaim for the animal and recognition for the adolescent, who, emotionally stronger now, is able to solve a host of personal problems. However, this positive resolution does not extend to those animals unwilling to submit to human mastery;insubordinate horses and dogs are not allowed to thrive by the final pages.
It is as though in a world where young people are so powerless, where they count so little in the adult scheme of things, there must be an animal over whom complete dominance is possible. Thus, more rarely, as in Danger Dog and Ride a Wild Dream , a relationship between adolescent and animal materializes towards the end of the story, a reward for the protagonist's struggle.
In some cases a literal quest ensues when the protagonist tries to ascertain an animal's true identity, ultimately discovering it to be a prize-winning champion or the descendent of one. Often, there is a variation of the Cinderella story when an initially ugly and apparently worthless animal emerges as the beautiful and valuable prize-winner. In stories with female protagonists, the Cinderella tale is sometimes two-fold, with the heroine also becoming more attractive and even acquiring a boyfriend through her involvement with a horse or dog.
Although the animals meet the protagonists' emotional needs in virtually all of Hall's animal romances, the emphasis of the stories varies. Some novels are more focused than others on the suspense of the quest itself. Although the narration may include many references to the protagonist's personal problems, character development is not the main concern. The problems are either quickly resolved at the end or receive only scant attention: when the adventure is over, the story ends.
To build and sustain the suspense that is the driving force of these stories, the protagonist must be able to rise quickly to the occasion, transcending his or her own problems without delay to save a threatened animal. Thus, Hall's story lines often require protagonists whose lives are not so complicated or chaotic that they are rendered helpless, mired in their own unhappiness. Most of the protagonists in these suspense stories are young men whose main concern seems to be with their identity as males. These protagonists, who are often fond of music and literature, are more sensitive than the other males in the story, and often they harbor what they perceive to be an almost shameful distaste for brutality and roughhousing. The success of the quest confirms their masculinity.
In The Tormentors , Sox, a member of a large Hispanic family, compares himself unfavorably to his daring older brothers. However, although he suspects that he is "chicken," he unhesitatingly, and at great risk to himself, tracks down the men who have kidnapped his cherished German shepherd Heidi. By the end of the story, he has established himself as a hero in the eyes of his brothers and parents. But it is the excitement of his adventure and the dog's narrow escape that rivets our attention, not his love for Heidi or how the relationship between dog and boy helps Sox find his place in his family and peer group -- even though it does.
More problematic is the outcome of The Something Special Horse . Chris resents his father, who buys horses only to sell them at a profit to a "kill buyer." Despite his father's insensitivity to Chris' feelings, the story demonstrates that his parents do care about his well-being, and the reader might reasonably expect some resolution of the troubled relationship between father and son. Instead, the novel concentrates on Chris' harrowing adventure when he steals one of his father's newly purchased horses whom he believes to be "something special" and rides her through long, dangerous nights to safety. The book ends abruptly when Chris telephones his whereabouts to his father, who has been searching for him along the highways.
Chris believes that he is changing for the better through his adventure:The real Chris Eklund would never have defied his daddy, snuck off with something his daddy owned, dodged his mom, and got his brother to cover up for him . . . . He kind of liked this guy who was riding through the night to try to save a horse. (p. 57)
By implying here that Chris' rescuing the horse is more commendable than his developing a healthy relationship with his family, Hall seems to be establishing a world in which the fate of animals takes precedence over human interactions. What finally matters is the horse's survival, not what happens between the father and son whose tensions have served only to launch the adventure and will certainly be exacerbated by it. One might argue that the many negative portrayals of adults in Hall's animal romances serve to justify such a value system.
Other romances involving animal characters are concerned mainly with the protagonist's psychological development. With little control over their own disrupted lives, these adolescents face problems so severe that the question of their emotional survival rather than the suspense of their adventures necessarily remains in the foreground.
In Danza! Paulo lives in Puerto Rico with his grandfather Diego while his father works in California. Diego berates Paulo for being a "baby" who prefers to ride mares instead of stallions: "A man was less than a man if his mount was less than a stallion" (p. 4). Hungry for affection and acceptance, Paulo feels estranged from the family even when his father comes to visit. The distance between father and son, both emotional and physical, is conveyed by Paulo's brusque description of his father:He was a narrow-faced, handsome man, but some quality in him made Paulo nervous. It was as though the man were making polite conversation with a stranger because it was expected of him. (p. 22)
In Halsey's Pride , March has also been separated from a parent, in this case her divorced mother who dumps March on her incompetent father in order to return to school and reserve more time for studying. When March speaks of her mother, the flat language again indicates the ruptured bond between parent and child:Mom was narrowly built, with kinky red hair and prominent bones. You could look at her arms and see her as an entire skeleton. She was pretty in a high-strung way. (p. 11)
These distanced observations contrast sharply with the young people's intense reactions to the animals that enter their respective lives. When Paulo first mounts his grandfather's horse Danza, he "was washed by a feeling of completeness, as though his other half was rejoined to him" ( Danza! , p.61 ). When he nurses Danza back to health after his own carelessness has nearly killed the horse, Danza becomes an alter ego to the boy. The two exist almost as a single entity:Sometimes it seemed to Paulo that their very breathing was in unison. Paulo found that he was able to sleep deeply only at times when Danza slept and Danza's waking, silent though it was, woke Paulo in the same instant. (p.103)
Other alienated Hall protagonists share this same powerful identification with an animal. When Tuck, a runaway ward of the state in Tin Can Tucker , meets the mare Indigo, she experiences a "small, electric shock, . . . . are cognition of some sort, like meeting her own eyes in the mirror" (p. 12). As she later says, the horse "is family to me . . . . I just have this strong feeling that from now, well, it's the two of us against the world" (p. 58).
The characters describe their horses and dogs in raptly sensory language that reflects their intense involvement. Paulo sees Danza asa study in balance, in fine breeding, and in glowing intelligence. The neck, on the side not hidden by the luxurious new mane, was clean and fine at the throat latch but swelling now with the muscled crest of a mature stallion. The copper-colored body was sleek, dappled . . . with a smoother finish of muscling over the croup. His legs were clean and straight, his pastern long. The tail that completed the picture was a black cascade. ( Danza! , pp. 170-171 ).
In Danger Dog , David's first glimpse of Max, a Doberman pinscher trained as a dangerous attack dog, echoes Paulo's enthrallment about Danza and uses, in fact, similar details:The dog was beautiful. He was as cleanly carved as a racehorse: long, narrow, elegant head, ears chopped off to form erect points, powerful chest, and legs made of long ridges of muscle and sinew. His tail was an almost invisible stub. The coat was short and hard and a brilliant polished black, set off by red-gold marking on his legs and beneath his tail. Twin tan spots showed over his eyes.(p. 9)
By the final chapter of Hall's accomplishment romances, the protagonist is securely moored in a loving "family." Whether or not the unit includes an actual parent, the lesson is clear: by forming a close relationship with an animal and caring for it, the adolescent has moved beyond his or her own needs and, more for having survived the quest, is now able to enjoy fulfilling relationships with other people. Other Hall novels in this category include The Soul of the Silver Dog and Troublemaker .
A few Hall novels qualify as love-romances, despite the absence of a traditional love story. As Donelson and Nilsen point out, the love-romance has many characteristics in common with the accomplishment-romance, but the focus shifts to the "pairing of a likable young couple." In YA fiction, they explain, the plot usually reverses the old boy-meets/loses/gets-girl formula to tell the story from the girl's point of view: "She is the one who meets, loses, and finally wins a boy" (p. 138). Hall's animal stories that fall into the love-romance category, all told from a female point of view, adhere to this formula with one significant change: it is not a knight on a white horse but the horse itself that captures the girl's imagination.
The lives of these young women are almost more chaotic than the lives of the protagonists in Hall's other animal romances. Only one, Rowan in The Whispered Horse , has a father, and her mother has been murdered. In The Horse Trader , Karen lives uneasily with the certainty that her unmarried mother does not love her. And in Mrs. Portree's Pony , Addie has been given to a foster family by a mother too occupied with her own affairs to care for the child. All want to be loved, as Addie says, "in that easy generous way that people love children" (p. 1).
In each case, the protagonist allies herself with a horse that fills her days and heart, an infatuation that Addie calls "horse-love" ( Mrs. Portree's Pony , p. 12 ) and that seems to approximate the romantic longings for a boyfriend that absorbs other Hall female protagonists. Hall describes"horse-love" in a note to the reader that opens Tazo and Me :I know you. You ride horses in your dreams and draw horses on your school notebook paper. Model horses and poster horses clutter your room, and your star wish is always for a horse of your own. The ache of horse hunger is long and deep . . . . (p. 1)
The relationship between the girls and their horses is symbiotic: both outcasts, they depend upon each other for survival. Just as other Hall heroines are drawn to boys whose features are flawed, the imperfections ensuring that the boy is not "out of reach," these girls gravitate to horses that are old, sick, or unsightly. In true romance fashion, girl and horse prevail together.
Kate Kruschwitz has noted the "erotic" overtones in relationships between women and horses, and the girls in these stories respond with a high degree of sensuality to the horses they love. In fact, their passions far outstrip the responses of other Hall heroines to sexual attraction between males and females.
For example, in Flying Changes , Denny purports to be in love with Tyler with whom she has had her first sexual relationship. However, when she thinks back on their love-making, it is with more terseness than ardor. She might as well be talking about vying for first place at a horse show: "This was me, giving something [virginity] I held dear and precious for the first time ever. It meant something to me. It meant a whole hell of a lot to me" (p. 22). And later, "Last night we made love in his bed in the guest room, me putting everything I had into it, hoping to pull the love words out of him" (p. 24).
In contrast, when Addie loses her heart to Mrs. Portree's Pony in their first meeting, she is deeply moved:[H]er fingertips were close . . . enough to feel the warm, damp puffs from his nostrils, and with an almost physical pain the crust in Addie began to crack. Love came up in her as hot and forceful as molten lava rising in an old volcano.
She moved closer but left the first touching up to him. Whiskers brushed her palm, then suede-soft, rubbery lips. She shivered . . . . She breathed in his air; he breathed in hers . . . . He was hers then. They both knew it . . . .
She felt her arm across his back and knew it must be her legs that gripped his sides . . . . He must have the power of his greater strength over her and yet do her bidding. He must have the power to hurt her but choose not to. Then she would be loved. (pp. 13-14)
One can only speculate about readers' reactions had thirteen-year-old Addie lavished such passion on a young man! Yet this is not an isolated instance in Hall's fiction. In The Horse Trader , when Karen first mounts Lady Bay, she is similarly stirred:Incredible elation filled Karen as she absorbed the feel of her horse. She stroked the mane, the neck, the warm place under the mane. She reveled in the curve of the barrel against her legs. After a while she carefully maneuvered herself until she was sitting backward, then she lay down, tenderly, with her cheek against the horse's croup, her arms lovingly encircling the hips. The fragrance of horse was strong, this close, and Karen closed her eyes to savor it. (p. 66)
And here is Rowan with the horse Bannet in The Whispered Horse :She explored him like a lover. She learned the freckled skin inside his nostrils and the fuzz inside his ears and the pattern of the dappled rings on his flanks. She studied the soles of his hooves and the lashes of his eyes. (p.60)
As the above passages strongly suggest, the girls here have sublimated their youthful sexual awakenings to an infatuation with horses. Hall's repeated portrayal of the risky, unsatisfactory relationships between the sexes helps to account for this development. Not surprisingly, this all-encompassing love fora horse leads the young women to experience what might be sexual jealousy in a traditional boy-girl romance. When Addie thinks about the pony's real owner,the thought rankled. Addie hated it . . . . He was hers. She needed him to be hers legally, openly, in every way. (p. 18)
Her feelings intensify when she meets the pony's real owner and watches as the pony "leaned his head against the woman to rub his itchy face against her blouse. Jealousy shot through Addie" (p. 22).
In The Horse Trader , Karen is equally possessive as she reflects on the girl she believes to be her horse's former owner:The thought of Cathy and Lady Bay together brought a stomach-tightening mixture of emotions: jealousy that Lady Bay had loved another girl before her, a secret gladness that Cathy was dead and she was alive, shame at herself for being glad about anyone's death. (p. 66)
Like the "accomplishment" romances discussed earlier, these "love" romances end happily. However, the ending depends less upon the girls' proving their merit through a difficult experience or quest than it does on their simply sustaining a great love for and devotion to a horse, much as the young women in traditional romances find happiness through true love with a young man.
Where animals are central to Lynn Hall's YA novels, they fill two major functions: they initiate an adventure, either for themselves or an adolescent who befriends them, and/or they succor the emotional needs of a troubled young person. In general, the animals are drawn into the closest relationships with those adolescents whose needs are most intense.
In the most intimate of these relationships, the animals serve as a human counterpart -- alter ego, friend, family member, romantic interest -- for adolescents who have few other people upon whom to rely. Also, in this fictional world where parents offer little nurture to children and where children, therefore, seem no longer entitled to youthful innocence, the animals could be said to take on the role of children, helpless and needing care. In befriending these vulnerable creatures, the adolescents gain maturity and earn the respect and love of other people.
These patterns involving animals -- adventure, accomplishment, and maturation-- are not, of course, unique to Hall's fiction. From classics like Lassie Come Home and National Velvet to more recent works such as Where the Red Fern Grows and A Day No Pigs Would Die , animals have appeared regularly in fiction for young adults. Their continuing presence signifies their importance to adolescent lives that unfold outside the covers of books as well as between them, and Hall's animal stories reflect and emphasize that significance.
An assistant professor of English at Drake University, where she teaches writing and literature for adolescents, Joanne Brown has recently completed a term as editor of The Iowa English Bulletin.