Title: Lucy Takes the Reins
Tagline: Can Elizabeth help Lucy face her toughest challenge? [Dove: Obv. Nothing is too hard for Saint Elizabeth.]
Summary: Elizabeth Wakefield’s friend Ted Rogers is in big trouble. He’s fallen behind with his payments to Carson Stables for the care of his horse, Thunder. Unless he wins the prize money in a regional jumping championship, he’ll have to sell the magnificent animal.
With everything riding on this competition, Elizabeth offers to help Ted train. Soon they’re spending most afternoons at the stables. That’s where they meet a mysterious new girl named Lucy Benson. Lucy seems to know a lot about horses. And when Ted has a bad fall, only weeks before the competition, Elizabeth is convinced that Lucy can take his place. Elizabeth doesn’t know that a secret fear has kept Lucy off a horse for the past two years. But she does know that Lucy needs to compete – and to win – for Ted’s sake… and her own.
I was under the impression that I’d never read this before – the story seemed unfamiliar to me, but then Jessica referred to currycombs as “hairycombs” and I knew I had read it before. It just didn’t stick. So that’s a really good sign. [Wing: HAIRYCOMBS OH MY GOD.]
Note: As someone who generally adores Ellen, the only way I can get through this is to pretend that the Ellen in any horse book is a completely different Ellen to the one we see at school. This isn’t me being a Malfoy apologist (“Jason Isaacs is hot, so Malfoy racism is excusable…” thinking), it’s just that the Ellen who rides horses is shrill, spiteful, vindictive and violent, whereas the one we see in school tends to be vague in her meanness. Absolutely she’s in the mean girls clique, but she has a strong follower stance. Yes, she’s mean, but she appears to take her cues from Lila and co. In this, she has no leader and she’s a real alpha bitch, not a beta one. If you look at Holiday Mischief, when Ellen is away from the rest of the Unicorns, it doesn’t occur to her to keep being mean, and she actually helps Anna hide her lack of singing ability. That’s why an Ellen sans Unicorns who leads two terror crusades against other horse riders seems so strange.
[Wing: This is the Ellen I love. She’s horrible and holds her own with Jessica and Lila.]
The story starts with Jessica and Elizabeth bickering over how much Jessica ate during a picnic at Secca Lake. Elizabeth bullies Jessica into a walk to burn off the calories and they might see some horseys! Elizabeth, have you met your twin? First of all, she’s a Wakefield twin, so calories drop off as a mark of respect with no effort required at all; second, Jessica very recently got burned by exercise, where she actually put on weight thanks to the muscle she was building; third, she hates horses.
However, Jessica manages to find a silver lining: the “giant, smelly horse“ might have a cute boy atop. Elizabeth then marvels on how they are so totes identical physically but so different in personality. Has anyone noticed that it’s always Elizabeth who is musing over their same-but-differences? Elizabeth really does have very few interests: twin, periods, reading, writing. [Raven: You forgot “helping.” Or as I’d have it, “meddling.”]
Elizabeth dramatically sinks to a bed of soft pine needles and sighs wistfully, suddenly filled with angst that she hasn’t been to the stable lately (ha! So fucking much for “If you buy me a horse, I’ll see it every single day because I’m filled with love and enthusiasm!”). Just then, a girl the twins’ age rides by on a “magnificent black Arabian“, the girl is wearing full showing regalia, black jacket, breaches, velvet cap.
Ok, time for me to clarify something. Wing says that in the USA most young boys and girls are immediately put on horses because what’s the point of ponies? I keep forgetting to make this clear because in England it’s just a part of being horsey: in England, it is bad form to overmount yourself.
[Wing: Well, in Western riding, I’ve only ever seen kids go straight to horses. It’s possible that in Eastern style in the US, they start on ponies. Readers, if you know, hook us up.]
Overmounting is either riding a horse that is too big for you or too much for you, or both. In fact, it’s common for someone’s “second horse” to still be a pony. A pony is less than 14.2hh (hh = hands high, a hand is 4 inches) from ground to withers (the peak where the neck meets the back).
Where I learned to ride, it was incredibly common to hear a tiny tot ask, “Can I ride Bomber (15hh) this week?” and be told by the instructor, “No, you’re way too little. Get on Martini (10hh) instead,” or – even better – “Sure. If you can mount her without any help at all.” (Said tot would sigh and head towards Martini.)
So it’s really weird to see all these kids who should be on a 13hh Welsh Mountain riding these gigantic purebred horses. And I can’t work out whether this is just ‘MURICA RULES GO BIG OR GO HOME or if it’s because it’s being written by people who don’t know horses. [Raven: Right, so I know sod all about horses… but can’t horses be different sizes in their breed? Like, this “magnificent black Arab”… does it have to be 15hh? The book never mentions the size in hands, could the use of stuff like “big” or “magnificent” be relative to the narrator’s size?] [Dove: Yes, they can be different sizes, but if she’s riding a horse, then that size is a minimum of 14.2hh, which is fairly large for a 12 year old. Not utterly implausible, but still a bit eye-poking that every kid rides a horse straight off.]
Also, I’m not saying that every rider who owns an Arab is spending every waking hour schooling and practicing jumping for the purpose of showing, but Arabs are expensive, and I’m goggling at the fact that this girl has sprung for one – and full showing gear – for a leisurely hack along the lake. It’s the showing gear that she’s wearing for a Saturday hack that’s baffling me.
Awesome. Nearly 1,000 words and I’m on the first page. This is going well.
Elizabeth can’t take her mind off the Arab horse, so vows to see Thunder tomorrow. Jessica rolls her eyes, and says Elizabeth talks about the horse like he’s a person. Elizabeth says he is to her. Just like the “snob squad”, this is an informed attribute. I have never seen Elizabeth bury her face in Thunder’s mane, have a good old cry and whisper, “You’re my only friend.” Or run up to him, and tell him all about her boring week at school, and how she got told off because she was supposed to be doing something in French, and instead her workbook was filled with (badly drawn) doodles of Thunder. Or, in that vein, that she’s in her fourth year of French, literally knows nothing of the language at all, but finally managed to find the exact way to make dapples look good when drawing with an HB pencil on her French workbook. #JustSayin’ (For the dapples, use the side of the lead, smudge with your finger, and if it doesn’t smudge well enough, lick your finger – very little saliva – and smudge again.)
Also, a skunk steals their chocolate cake. Everyone but Jessica finds this hilarious. Jessica takes it personally and is done with Mother Nature.
And gosh, I will say, that is a truck-load of foreshadowing that is easily ignored as “same but different, Jessica hates animals, lol!”
The next afternoon, Elizabeth visits Ted and Thunder. Ted tells Elizabeth that he’s three months behind on his payments to the stable for boarding Thunder, and if he doesn’t pull something out of his ass soon, he’s going to have to sell Thunder.
Does anyone else want that story? Let’s update Black Beauty, and have Thunder’s POV as he’s passed around the morons of Sweet Valley.
Conveniently, there’s a jumping competition in two weeks and the prize money will solve everything.
Another English thing: pot hunting (entering just to win the prizes) is frightfully bad form. However, this is the exception to that rule. If you’re doing it to save your horse, then pot hunt hard.
[Wing: WHAT’S THE POINT OF ENTERING IF YOU’RE NOT TRYING TO WIN?!] [Raven: Yeah, I’m all for pot hunting. I reckon the true English thing is to pot hunt like a demon without giving any sign that winning is important. Becasue admitting it is gauche.]
Elizabeth exclaimed. “Of course you’ll win!” Ted was the finest horseman she’d ever met.
I don’t mean to insult Ted here, but Elizabeth knows like… two other people who ride horses. And one of them is Ellen Riteman. The other is Lila Fowler. The sample pool is a little shallow.
Ted says that he needs to practice and Elizabeth offers to help him train – good fucking CHRIST, this kid’s been riding for all of two months, what the fuck does she know about show jumping? She also says she could help with his job, freeing up his time to practice – and that is actually a good idea.
Mr Carson, the owner of the stables, comes over and freely discusses Ted’s financial difficulty in front of Elizabeth. Again, I don’t know if this is ‘MURICA or bad writing, but bad form. Mr Carson gives Ted until after the competition to get his finances up to date and then leaves them alone.
They hear Calypso, a dapple grey, move around in his stall, and feel the need to investigate this highly unusual behaviour. Ted notices that Calypso has sugar in his mouth—
DEAR FUCKING CHRIST, STOP GIVING HORSES SUGAR. THEY CANNOT BRUSH THEIR TEETH AFTERWARD. GIVE THEM APPLES OR CARROTS. FOR FUCK’S SAKE.
Sorry, that really gets on my tits. [Raven: Interesting fact: Def Leppard’s Pour Some Sugar On Me is actually about the drummer’s love for his horse, along with a potent subtext concenring the dangers of Diabetes. True story!] [Dove: That “fact” is making a lot of strippers question their music choice.]
—and Elizabeth and Ted find this odd – presumably nobody in the world cares for Calypso and wouldn’t give him a treat? – and decide to check the riding ring. There’s nobody there. Ooooh, it’s a mystery.
Except, y’know, the title is Lucy takes the reins, so yeah, not really a mystery.
Over on the evil twin side of things, Jessica is getting ready to sprawl out on the beach, catch some sun and boywatch. Oddly, the beach is deserted. And I must quote this:
“Better for us,” Lila said, tossing her head. “I hate it when the beach is crowded with little kids playing and kicking sand around. It’s so hard to concentrate on relaxing.”
“Maybe you should just ask your father to buy you your own private beach,” Jessica joked.
Lila seemed to seriously consider the idea. “Hmm, maybe you’re right. When I get home, I’ll ask–”
Lila. Never change. (Also, Jessica, I love it when you’re sassy. Be more sassy.)
They wonder why the beach is so empty. Lila excitedly suggests that maybe there’s a shark and it scared everyone away, so they shouldn’t go into the water until they’re sure it’s safe. Again, Lila, NEVER CHANGE.
Jessica notices that there is a horrible smell coming from the water, and when she looks out to the waves, they’re the wrong colour – they’re black, and leaving a slimy residue. They move along the beach and see a few people on the rocky barrier. Jessica says she’s going to ask them what’s going on, but Lila’s not interested, because even the rocks are covered in slime, and she’s not going to mess up her outfit. Then she grudgingly follows Jessica, because she doesn’t want to be left alone like a loser.
Jessica ruins her outfit by climbing onto the rocks and pulling Lila up behind her. She hears a barking noise, which startles her, and she falls over into another oily puddle. Lila’s not interested, but Jessica tracks the noise, and finds a baby seal trapped in a hole.
Lila tells her to leave it alone, it might have rabies, and Jessica nearly goes along with this for a second, and then the seal makes a sad “krooh krooh” noise that tugs at her heartstrings. She flings herself on the ground – outfit be damned – and helps him out of the nook he’s stuck in. She gets him out and pulls him into her lap and tries to comfort him. She tells him when she puts him back in the ocean, she’s sure his mother will find him.
Another voice says that he’s not sure the mother will find him. This is Adam Scott and he explains that an oil tanker ran aground, split open and the baby seal probably got separated from his mum during the oil slick. He’s a member of Ecology Now and they’re trying to clean up the beach.
Also, during this time, Lila tries to take credit for saving the baby seal, and usually I’d be all over Lila being a diva, but back off, darling girl. Jessica just did something genuinely awesome, not for praise, not to impress a boy, not to appease her sister or curry favour with her parents or a teacher. She literally did something because it was right.
This is a fucking milestone and, just this once, Lila, I’m gonna ask you to pipe down, step away, and let Jessica have this.
Jessica says she’s named the baby seal Whiskers, and she’s really proud of saving him.
Adam counters that he’s not fully saved yet, and needs to get to a vet, and the beach needs cleaning up. He asks the girls if they would be interested in helping. Lila immediately says no, citing a busy social life – I’m just shocked she didn’t hire someone to clean up in her place, so she could feel good about doing something for the environment, without the bother of actually doing it – but Jessica says she’ll help. And it’s only about 4% because Adam is cute. The rest is because she’s attached to Whiskers and upset about how gross the beach is.
So that’s plots A and B sorted. I know which one I prefer. I’m pretty sure you guys can tell which one I prefer so far too.
When Jessica gets home, the Wakefields are watching the news about the oil spill. Jessica tells everyone she saved a baby seal. Steven laughs his head off at this, and says she doesn’t even like dogs, so why would she save a seal? Yes, because an animal dying and Jessica fearing dogs are exactly the same thing. You fucking muppet. [Raven: In Irish, the word for otter translates as “water dog”, the word for squirrel “tree dog”, and the word for seal “sea dog”.] Jessica then adds that Dr Robinson, a vet at the Sweet Valley Aquarium, said that Whiskers would have died without her intervention. And then Jessica actually gushes about how adorable Whiskers is.
Elizabeth, very earnestly, says she wishes she could help, but she’s busy helping Ted. Jessica says there will still be plenty of oil to clean up after the championship. Steven zeroes in on Jess dropping Adam’s name and decides his sister is only interested because of a cute boy.
The next day at school, the Unicorns discuss the oil spill, and Jessica is starting to feel less enthusiastic about helping with the clean-up. Ellen says they have a new baton routine to learn, so Jessica gratefully takes the excuse not to show up. Then Elizabeth rocks up and says she’s going to the stables after school to help Ted train.
Ellen butts in that Ted’s been helping her train on Snow White – who must be back to showing fitness after giving birth to the unfortunately named Sooner – and they’re entering the junior hunters class. Again, this is so not how things go in England. The showing/jumping classes tended to be 10 and under; 12 and under; 14 and under; and then the junior hunters and so forth were often separate shows or mostly populated by adults and late teens/young adults. It’s been awhile, but if I recall correctly, a lot of our hunter trials had a minimum age of 14.
After school, Elizabeth tells Ted that Ellen is pretty confident about winning. Ted hastily says that Ellen’s not as good a rider as Saint Elizabeth (obv), but she’s pretty good and in a few years she might give him a run for his money in the junior jumpers class. I call bullshit. Ellen has repeatedly demonstrated that she is rubbish around horses – constantly screaming and punishing her horse for acting like a horse – and it really doesn’t matter how great Snow White’s pedigree is, with an inept rider who frightens her, that horse will never do well. In fact, pretty much every pony book I read back in the day contained an A or B plot about someone buying a wonderful horse who had fallen on hard times due to a shitty rider, and the protagonist coaxing the horse back to greatness by showing love and trust. Snow White is that horse, because Ellen is very much the kind of person who would blame and sell a horse before admitting that she’s fucking hopeless in the saddle.
[Wing: SOMEONE SAVE SNOW WHITE.]
Elizabeth offers to sweep the stable so Ted can practice jumping. Ted swoons with gratitude and wonders how he can ever repay her. I dunno, Ted, you let her ride your horse all the time for free, how about we consider this even, since it never even occurred to Saint Elizabeth that she should be grateful for access to a horse whenever she wants it. Elizabeth then adds he can repay her by letting her ride Thunder later. Fucking asshat. Die in a fire, you greedy bitch. [Raven: I think we missed that train in last week’s book.]
Then we revisit the mystery, because every horse is chomping down on a carrot, but there’s nobody around. Not sure if you’ve ever fed a horse a carrot or apple, but it goes down pretty fast, so these horses are very slow chewers.
Outside, they spot a girl with curly hair, who Elizabeth thinks she recognises from school. The two go over and interrogate her. She’s not waiting for a lesson, she’s just here. She’s called Lucy Benson, and she’s been riding since she was seven. She points at the beginners lesson and says she was younger than them when she started riding. And that’s supposed to impress us, is it?
HAVE THAT! Baby Dove in plaster from waist to toes with her pony. Get fucked, you n00b.
(The pony is called Esmerelda, the baby is called Dove, the dad is called Dad, the black-and-white collie is called Bob, and the poodles are called Sox and… something else. I’m sorry, I can’t remember.)
[Wing: Since we’re showing off horse pictures, while I don’t have one of baby!Wing, I do have one of young!Wing with bonus siblings.
The horse is Sparky (born on the Fourth of July), the three kids are Brother Raptor (HOW ADORABLE WAS HE?!), young!Wing, and Sister Canary (ALSO ADORABLE). Adult is Sister Heron. I was about four or five, Sister Canary was about three or four, and Brother Raptor was about one or two. Also: look at those long legs on baby!Wing. Would you believe that all three of the other siblings in this picture are taller than me now? BECAUSE THEY ARE AND I HATE THEM FOR IT HOW DARE YOU OUTGROW ME. All I wanted was to reach six foot. I did not make it. (Even at six foot, Sister Canary and Brother Raptor would still be taller than me.)]
[Raven: No pictures of Baby Raven on a horse, I’m afraid. I’m guess I was the only recapper who took overmounting seriously.]
Elizabeth says that Lucy must be very good, if she’s been riding that long. Ah, so practice time does count then? Therefore, Elizabeth can’t be that good, if she’s only been riding a few months. Lucy says yes, she’s a good rider, but there’s hesitation in her tone. Ted asks if she owns a horse, she says she used to own a “beautiful bay thoroughbred“ called Starfire. Once again, these kids only have the best breeds. I’m fairly certain if you went to a horse dealer and said, “I’m looking for a stodgy, trustworthy pony with an even temper, suitable for my five year old who’s never ridden before,” the dealer would insist that they buy a 15.3hh Anglo-Arab stallion (because why geld when ‘stallion’ is such an exciting word), who hasn’t been fully broken yet, but has a very beautiful jump… when he’s in the mood to jump. (In England? Shetland. Always Shetlands. I’m pretty sure even the royal family learned to ride on Shetlands. Thelwell rules.)
Elizabeth blurts that Lucy’s lucky, she’d love to own a horse. Then she adds that she can ride Thunder whenever she likes, without realising that she’s literally in the best position possible – she has access to a horse whenever she wants, she pays nothing towards it, and Ted doesn’t even ask her to clean the tack or groom Thunder as a thank you. Lucy gushes that Thunder is the best horse EVAH, and Ted offers to let her ride him now, as he’s got plenty of time to practice. Lucy pales and says no thank you and basically runs away.
Seriously, Ted, you either need to practice or you don’t. Also, I know this isn’t a real pony book, but if it was, now’s the time when every owner gets a bit nervous about letting other people ride their horses in case they go lame before a competition, and since Ted needs to win to pay his debts off, this is actually serious business. But no, feel free to offer out your horse to anyone who moseys past. Also, Elizabeth offered to cover Ted’s jobs so he could practice, and now he’s like, “I’ve got free time up the wazoo, feel free to ride my horse!” so I hope Elizabeth gets a bit salty over that.
(Also, clearly nobody is actually going to do the work Ted is paid for, because the plot demands we fawn over Lucy and her obviously-tragic backstory.)
The next day, Sweet Valley Middle are at Sweet Valley Aquarium for a school trip (presumably they got there on a bus owned by Sweet Valley Buses, and will eat a lunch provided by Sweet Valley Foods and will wipe their hands on paper towels supplied by Sweet Valley Napkins), [Wing: Well, they probably took a Sweet Valley School Bus, does that work?] led by brand new teacher, Mr Tilley (I’m sure Wing will add him to our tags). Lila is not interested in the animals and is bragging about a mysterious surprise that her dad is organising for her (this never goes anywhere, possibly it comes up in the next book?). Jessica instead turns to Elizabeth and says she hopes they’ll see Whiskers.
Elizabeth spots Lucy and leaves Amy and Jessica behind, because that’s how she rolls. Elizabeth asks Lucy if she’ll be at the stables after school, and Lucy says yes and runs off again. I wish it was because she didn’t like Elizabeth, but we all know it’s because she has a tragic backstory.
Their unnamed guide shows them around and tells them about how the oil spill is endangering the lives of the wildlife of Sweet Valley. Jessica feels a stab of fear when the guide mentions that an otter died this morning.
They move on and Dr Robinson shows them the baby seals.
“This little guy is named Whiskers,” Dr. Robinson began. “He is a young harbor seal who was found by – as a matter of fact,” he said, peering at the class, “I believe the girl who saved Whiskers is here today. At least, one of you is the girl. I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you apart.”
“It was me.” Jessica held up her hand and beamed.
Wouldn’t it be ace if Elizabeth yelled “It was ME!” and then turned to Jessica and said, “See, doesn’t it suck when people take credit for your hard work?” Well, no, because I hate Elizabeth, but it would be interesting at least.
Dr Robinson tries to feed Whiskers a fish-shake, ground up herring and whipped cream, but Whiskers only takes a small sip before losing interest, because he’s weak from the oil spill and the stress of being away from his mother and in a new environment. Jessica asks if he’s going to be ok, and Dr Robinson doesn’t really give a concrete answer, but offers to let Jessica feed him. This works a treat, and Dr Robinson jokes that maybe Whiskers just doesn’t like being fed by him.
On the way out of the aquarium, Jessica can’t get the image of Whiskers out of her mind. Elizabeth says she’s sure he’ll be fine, but seems doubtful. They bump into Adam, and Jessica says she’s worried about Whiskers. Adam asks if she’ll be at the beach for cleanup today, since he didn’t see her yesterday, and Jess says she will show up.
At the stables, Elizabeth finds Lucy hard at work cleaning the tack – so at least someone is doing Ted’s job. Elizabeth asks Lucy if she’s ever won a competition, and Lucy says she won a few. Urgh, the mentality of this book. HAVE YOU WON? IT ONLY MATTERS IF YOU WIN.
[Wing: Pretty much every underdog sports movie, including The Mighty Ducks which is referenced here, ends with the underdog team winning. WINNING IS EVERYTHING, DOVE.] [Raven: Hoo-rah!] [Dove: I like an underdog movie, but this is not an underdog story. Lucy and Elizabeth are the Hawks, and they’ve won every single blue ribbon around, which means they’re the best. Also, Gordon Bombay learned a lot about “a lot about teamwork, fair play and all that junk” before his team won.]
Speaking of, Ellen rocks up and asks Ted to help her with training Snow White. Elizabeth introduces her to Lucy, and Ellen is vaguely pleasant, and then tries flirting with Ted. I honestly don’t know why Ellen doesn’t just have a private coach. I mean, in this scene, she tries to flirt with Ted, but in all other books she’s not really shown an interest. Elizabeth and Lucy tag along to watch Ellen practice.
Ellen goes over three jumps easily, but Snow White runs out (veers to the side of the jump) on the next. Ellen throws a fit about how Snow White isn’t obeying her. Ted tells her to relax and to “hold her in tight till you hit your spot.“ Not sure I like the word tight there, but if Ellen’s reins are too loose, it gives Snow the freedom to easily take whichever route she wants.
Ellen tries again, and this time there are three easy jumps, and then Snow refuses. Ellen threatens to trade Snow White in for a better horse, and gives her a sharp kick before she leaves the ring.
Ted says that Ellen’s not the most patient of riders. Yeah, that. And she’s kicked her horse for no reason. Funny thing, horses don’t like to be hurt. But no, Lucy comments that she had the same problem when she first started jumping, and it was because her seat was too backwards, and once she sorted out her posture, everything fell into place. Uh, ok.
Elizabeth says Lucy should tell Ellen that, so they go to the stables where Ellen is untacking. After riding for less than ten minutes. Maybe that’s why Snow isn’t going well for you, Ellen. You’re not giving her any warm up time, you’re not bonding with her as a rider, and you’re a spiteful rider.
I knew someone who was a spiteful rider, but she was the instructor’s sister-in-law (well, nearly, but it’s too long a story to explain the full relationship). She was a sloucher, someone who let their reins trail, someone who yanked the reins hard and kicked too much, and she frequently hit the horses with a lead rope. Of course, any time someone told her not to do these things, she burst into tears and the instructor shouted at us for bullying. One time, she hit my beloved Wonder Pony in the face with a rope – for literally nothing, we were just standing around chatting and she lashed out at Wonder Pony – I was livid. I said something like, “If you ever do that again, I’ll wrap that rope around your neck and drag you through the woods.” I got in big trouble for threatening her, nobody cared that she hit my pony in the face though. I have a lot of anger about this, even now.
I could imagine horsey-Ellen doing something similar, but not at-school-Ellen.
So, Lucy tries to give Ellen some advice, but Ellen cuts her off, saying it’s not her problem, it’s Snow White’s, and besides, what makes Lucy such an expert? She offers to let Lucy show her how it’s done on Snow White right now, but Lucy says she can’t. Ellen says she’s probably never been on a horse in her life, Lucy says she really is a good rider, but will not take the challenge, and eventually runs back to the tack room to clean a saddle.
And if you don’t think Elizabeth’s Busybody Mode just got flipped into overdrive, you are clearly new to the site and the series.
Elizabeth follows her to the tack room, and Lucy clarifies that she really does want to ride, but she just can’t.
“What is it, then?” Elizabeth didn’t want to pry, but she had the feeling Lucy needed to talk to someone.
Elizabeth fucking lives to pry. [Raven: Add “prying” to “meddling.”]
Back over in the plot I care about, Jessica is cleaning up the beach with Adam, and getting very sad about how many animals are hurt by the spill and how long it will take to clean up – especially when Adam tells her that comparatively this is a very minor spill.
Jessica has worn a very pretty outfit, and digs for a compliment from Adam, which he gives, but follows up that it will be ruined, and she should have worn her scruffs. Ten minutes later, she realises he’s right, and she’s absolutely covered in oil.
“I’d like to get my hands on whoever is responsible for this!” Jessica fumed. “I’m a total mess!”
This week’s murderous rampage is brought to you by BP.
Adam says she looks good, despite the oil, and lets it slip that they have to clean up 10,000 barrels of oil from the beach. Jess is pleased by the compliment, but very daunted by the 10,000 barrels of oil – even if a cute eighth grader is talking to her, and Whiskers is the cutest thing in the world.
At home… I’m sorry, I’m going to have to quote the entirety of this because it’s beautiful.
“Don’t you dare throw that can in the trash, Steven Wakefield!” Jessica said loudly.
Steven paused, holding an empty soda can over the kitchen trash. “Why not?” he demanded.
“Because it’s made out of aluminum and you can recycle it, that’s why.”
Steven looked at Jessica suspiciously. “Is this some kind of a joke?”
“I’ll have you know that saving our environment is not a joke!” Jessica said hotly.
“I thought you were going to help me set the table, Jessica.” Elizabeth said as she came into the kitchen.
“She’s too busy bugging me,” Steven said in an exasperated voice. He tossed the soda can to Jessica. “Here. It’s all yours.”
“Have you seen the paper napkins?” Elizabeth asked.
“Paper napkins? Elizabeth, how could you?” Jessica cried. “Don’t you know that millions of trees get cut down every year to make paper? I think we should use cloth napkins. And–”
“Does this mean you’re not going to help me set the table?” Elizabeth interrupted with a grin.
“Elizabeth! I thought that I could at least count on you to be interested in saving the world.”
I just love this Jessica. She’s still on a homicidal rampage, but this is for The Greater Good. This is #BestJess and #BlessJess
Steven tries to say that Jessica only cares about the environment because of a boy, and while this is a very fair assumption, he seems to be way off. So far, Jessica only slightly notices that Adam’s cute, and there’s nothing in her scenes that shows she’s only doing this for his attention, for the most part, she’s doing this for the right reasons. Again #BestJess.
Alice breaks up the minor squabble and asks what Jess wants. She asks them to separate their garbage into recycling and non-recycling, which Alice approves (hah! Take that, Steven).
The next day at the stables, Ted has a few jumping issues, which Lucy the Genius solves. Ellen gets in a snit because she wants Ted to help her, and she doesn’t understand why he’s taking the competition so seriously when he could just ask his parents for money (now that, I will admit, sounds a bit more like in-school Ellen, too dim to realise that not everyone is wealthy). Ellen and Lucy have words again, with Ellen again saying Lucy probably doesn’t know how to ride, and finally Lucy asks Ted if she can ride Thunder to prove it.
And for fuck’s sake, does Ted need to practice or not? All through the book, it’s “OMG, MUST PRACTICE, MUST WIN, OTHERWISE WILL LOSE HORSE” and then in the next sentence it’s “Hey, 12 year old, ride my horse, I got nothing but time.”
Ted offers to lower the jumps, but Lucy says leave them as they are. Obviously she does a flawless round, despite the fact she’s very clearly terrified. Which… well, it’s not impossible because we’re always told that Thunder is an amazing horse, but we also saw him spook at a jump just a few paragraphs ago and horses can read a rider’s hesitation or fear. It’s not impossible she did a clear round, but it’s implausible.
Lucy excuses herself to clean tack again – Ted may never have to work again with her around – and the others wonder what happened to her horse if she’s that good a rider. What’s great about this is that Elizabeth has been told she can’t have a horse because they’re expensive, Ted’s about to lose his horse because they’re expensive, and even Ellen has said that she has to ride Snow White all the time, or her parents will decide it’s a waste of money and sell her. But it occurs to none of them that Lucy’s parents may have had to sell the horse because of the cost. I know that’s not the real reason, but it’s a sensible theory that occurs to none of them.
At home, Elizabeth checks in with Jessica, who’s had to resort to wearing nail polish to cover the stains left by the oil (apparently Jessica has never worn nail polish before… I’m sceptical on that), and she’s worried about Whiskers. Over dinner, Alice suggests Elizabeth invite Lucy and Jessica invite Adam over for dinner. Elizabeth hedges, saying that Lucy’s very shy (you’d think after The Carnival Ghost, Jess would be vetting every new friend in Elizabeth’s life), and Jessica flat-out refuses until they stop using paper napkins. #BestJess
Elizabeth calls Lucy after dinner. Lucy’s father answers, and when Elizabeth asks for Lucy he says, “Oh, yes. Lucy’s mentioned your name before. You must be one of her friends from glee club.” Elizabeth doesn’t get chance to correct him, and when she asks Lucy about it, Lucy is defensive, and then tries to laugh it off that her parents get confused. Because she’s totes not hiding that she’s going to the stables. (Also, delightfully, she puts off Elizabeth’s invitation for dinner. I bet that’s never happened to a Wakefield before – Claire doesn’t count because she’s dead.)
The next day at the stables – why are we always at the stables? I want to be with Jessica and Whiskers – Ted is actually on his horse and practicing, but a storm rolls in. When the lightning hits, Thunder rears and Ted falls off. And again, why do you have so many rearing horses? Rearing is considered a very bad fault – I don’t actually know why it’s considered so much worse than bucking, because I would imagine it’s easier to stay on a rear than a buck, because leaning forward is something riders do quite often to balance their weight, whereas a buck means you have to lean back, which doesn’t come as naturally. Although I did find a post on Horse & Hound that said, “If a horse comes at you with the hinds, it wants to hurt you but if it comes at you with the fronts, it wants to kill you.” So maybe that’s part of the philosophy of why rearing is such a bad fault in England.
[Wing: I was thinking about this after our last conversation about why rearing is such a bad fault, and I think you might be right. In horsey books in the US, rearing generally happens because the horse is startled and afraid, but in real life, I’ve mostly seen horses rear when they’re ready to beat the shit out of something (often each other). Rearing gives them room to lash out with their front hooves (and that hurts when it lands), but it also lets them come down hard on whatever is in front of them. I believe war horses were trained to knock down and trample. Whereas bucking seems to happen mostly when they want whatever is on them off, but the bucking stops once that happens.]
Anyway, Ted’s got a broken leg. He can’t ride in the trials, and now he will lose Thunder for certain. [Raven: Could it be that Ted is just crap with horses? I know he was decent in the previous horse book, but maybe puberty has done something to his posture, or pherimone count, or something.] [Dove: Well, he’s the “finest horseman” Elizabeth knows. So yeah, sure, maybe he is crap.]
Or, to put it another way, Elizabeth Wakefield is going to have to start paying for her riding lessons again.
Oh, and here we go again with Wakefield-centred storytelling. Elizabeth calls her mother, who comes to the hospital, and only then does it occur to gin-soaked Alice, of all people, that perhaps Ted’s father ought to be told his kid is in hospital. I’m like, why bother? Alice Wakefield knows. That’s all that matters.
A nurse recognises Lucy and tries to strike up a conversation. Lucy tells a hesitant lie about this, saying the nurse is a friend of her mother’s. To be honest, Elizabeth doesn’t even ask about the nurse, so I can only assume that Elizabeth actually made an assumption any normal human would: Lucy may have been to hospital at some point in her life.
On Saturday, they’re at the stables again – oh god, I’m so bored of this plot – and Ted rages that he’ll have to sell Thunder. If he truly has potential, why not approach someone wealthy – Mr Fowler, for example – and ask for sponsorship. I know that’s only a sliver of hope, but the text implies that Ted does want to compete professionally at some point, and sponsorship is a thing that happens in the horse world. Or sell a share of Thunder. Again, these aren’t perfect fixes and they aren’t guaranteed, but it would be worth a shot. Are they brought up or discussed? Obviously not.
Instead, they decide that Lucy should ride for him. Because she’s displayed great horsemanship over those three jumps she did last week. I’m astounded Saint Elizabeth wasn’t suggested, isn’t she the greatest little horsewoman on the planet?
Anyway, Lucy says no.
And finally we get back to Jessica, who’s at the aquarium with Adam. She drops in to see Whiskers and Dr Robinson. Jessica asks why Whiskers can’t go for a swim, and Dr Robinson says that the toxins in the oil have attacked his immune system, and they need him to be close to the equipment if anything happens. Jessica asks if he’s going to… and she can’t say the word. Dr Robinson tells her not to give up hope, and asks her to feed Whiskers. Jessica says she’ll come by every day after school to feed him. Dr Robinson says that feeding Whiskers will probably ruin her outfit.
Jessica glanced down at her brand-new pair of khaki shorts.
“Who cares?” she said, reaching for the bottle of formula. “I’ve got a hungry seal to feed!”
Sigh. Back to the stables. Elizabeth bad-mouths Ellen and Lucy, by moaning that she doesn’t get why Lucy won’t help Ted, and she’s a much better rider than Ellen. Then Ellen walks in, but apparently doesn’t hear, which is a shame. I’d like for Elizabeth to actually have to face up to bad-mouthing people, and not work on the assumption that it’s ok when she does it, because she’s only mean about people who she judges to be less than her.
Lucy appears and checks they’re not angry with her for not saving Ted. They’re not. Well, Elizabeth very clearly is, but she’s got a saintly reputation to uphold.
Ellen reads out the list of competitors, and when she gets to Alison Thatcher, Lucy decides that…
But still won’t explain herself.
Back with the plot I care about, Jessica is enthused about the clean-up when she sees loads of volunteers waiting. Adam says he thought she was getting tired of it, and she admits she was, but having spent the day with Whiskers, she realises how important it is. Adam tells her not to get too attached to Whiskers. She gulps and says, “because he might die?” and Adam clarifies, even if he lives, he’ll eventually go back to the wild.
Jessica didn’t want to think about losing Whiskers right now. It was just too painful. Maybe Adam was wrong. Maybe she and Whiskers could stay friends somehow. It was possible, wasn’t it?
Free Willy 2 says yes, Jess. You hold tight to your dream.
Ellen rocks up, and Jessica asks if she’s here to help clean up the beach, and, after rolling her eyes nearly out of her skull, Ellen says no, urgent Unicorn business. Then she moans about how Lucy’s a good rider, but she’s got a secret and Ellen needs to know what it is so she can eliminate her from the competition. Jessica flatly tells her that is not Unicorn business, and if it’s horse-related, she should ask Elizabeth. Ellen pushes her to dig around about Lucy anyway.
At home, Lucy has finally caved and agreed to have dinner at the Wakefield compound. Elizabeth, naturally, wants to interview her for the Sixers, but Lucy says no, she’s too shy. Elizabeth then introduces her to Jessica, who’s scrubbing oil off her hands. Jessica shows great interest in Lucy, which makes Elizabeth narrow her eyes in suspicion. Honestly, in this book, Jessica is so sweet, this is barely out of character. As a series, Jessica is wildly out of character though, and Elizabeth is right to be suspicious. Lucy asks the time, and when she learns it’s six o’clock, she says she needs to take an aspirin, and takes a medicine bottle out of her bag. The twins agree it doesn’t look like an aspirin bottle.
And I really don’t care. Zero fucks are given at all about this plot.
Just before dinner, the phone rings and Jessica picks up. She comes back into the room very doleful. Dr Robinson was on the phone and Whiskers is very sick, he may die. He told Jessica not to get her hopes up.
[Raven: I really liked the fact that Dr Robinson did very little sugar-coating to the bitter pill of Whiskers’s realistic chances. I mean, sure, we all know that Whiskers won’t die, but even so, it’s refreshing to have some actual faux peril for our poor seal chum.]
At school the next day, she can’t concentrate. All she can think of is Whiskers’ sad little face. Lila asks why Jessica didn’t laugh at the joke she made about Lois Waller (because it wasn’t funny, Lila), and Jessica snaps that there’s more important things than making fun of people. She says that Whiskers might die, and Lila’s like, “Oh, god, for a minute I thought you were serious. It’s just an animal.” Jessica says she’s going to feign sickness so she can skip school and go to the aquarium. Lila says she’ll tag along and they can go shopping, she hasn’t had a new outfit for eons. Jessica is not amused.
Jessica goes to the nurse’s office and sticks a thermometer against a lightbulb while the nurse is busy with someone else – who turns out to be Lucy. Jessica overhears the nurse ask how Lucy’s doing, and she says she forgot her pills today, and she’s still really sad that her parents sold her horse and made her give up horse riding, even though a doctor said it’s perfectly safe as long as she stays on her medication.
Jess is so distracted by this info-dump that she forgets how long she’s been holding the thermometer against a bulb. When the nurse comes back, she says Jess is really sick, she has Hamburger Disease, which means she has the temperature of a well-done burger. Then the nurse sends Jessica back to class. And A+ for the sassy nurse, probably the only adult in Sweet Valley that’s good at their job. [Raven: Obviously poached by Big Mesa before the end of this book.] [Dove: I’m pretty sure Big Mesa is just a huge meth lab.]
At lunch, Elizabeth does some research for her article, and finds out that Lucy fell off her horse at a show, and had to be taken to hospital in an ambulance, leaving Alison Thatcher to go on to win the blue ribbon.
At the same time, Jessica calls the aquarium for an update. Whiskers made it through surgery but the next 48 hours are going to be critical, and there’s nothing more that Dr Robinson can say. He suggests Jessica go about her life, and he’ll call if there’s any change.
She heads back to the Unicorner and Ellen asks why she looks so sad. Lila makes a bitchy comment, and Jessica doesn’t take it well.
“Lila,” Jessica growled, “if you don’t shut your mouth this instant I’m going to dump that mystery meat in your lap. Worse yet, I’ll make you eat it!”
Then she tells Ellen what she overheard about Lucy. Lila moans that everyone’s going on about stupid animals, and Ellen says the prize money is $1,000, which isn’t stupid. That gets Lila’s attention. Ellen adds that she expects the Unicorns to cheer her on and when she wins the money, she’ll use it for an awesome party for her loyal friends.
Jessica plans to skip it because Whiskers. Lila says it’s official Unicorn business.
The next day, Elizabeth and Lucy talk in the stall, while Lucy plaits Thunder for showing. No Ted then? My riding instructor broke her leg. She didn’t miss a day. She just hobbled around on crutches and made a helper carry one of those folding stools so she could rest if she got tired. [Wing: I have a mental image of the helper, slightly exasperated, just walking around behind her holding the stool and waiting to be useful.]
Elizabeth brings up the article and patronisingly tells Lucy that when she’s been riding a bit longer, she’ll know how to fall, and she won’t be scared any more. Lucy rightly tells her to get fucked, and she already knows how to fall (ha!). The reason she fell was because she has epilepsy. And she didn’t tell because everyone backs off once they find out, also her parents aren’t taking it well, etc. She’s entering the competition to prove that she can do it, so hopefully her parents will cool their boots.
When Elizabeth gets home… wait, what? So, Lucy plaited Thunder for the competition, and then they went home? What the actual fuck? Oh, just roll with it, I guess.
At home, Elizabeth finds Jessica in a very depressed state. Jessica basically tells her that Whiskers is still in critical condition, and she’d much rather that he swam off with his seal friends, fully healthy, and never saw her again than the alternative. Holy shit, Jessica. Most of the books after this are going to be a hell of a comedown for me, because this is my favourite Jess of all time.
Elizabeth nodded toward the blank TV screen. “By the way, were you watching something on TV?”
“No. I’m saving electricity. Too many people leave the TV on even when there’s nothing they really want to watch. And there wasn’t anything I wanted to watch so I turned it off.”
“But you were staring at it when I came in.”
Jessica shrugged. “I was depressed. I always watch TV when I’m depressed.”
Oh, honey. [Wing: As much as this b-plot didn’t melt my heart the way it did Dove’s, this scene does make my heart ache for Jessica.]
Also, that exchange screams Applegate. She always does good dialogue. It feels a bit Nina Geiger and Zoey Passmore of Making Out.
The phone rings, and it’s Ellen. Jessica isn’t in the mood and tries to get off the phone. She lets Lucy’s surname slip, and as soon as she’s done, Elizabeth interrogates her. Jessica says it’s Unicorn business and nothing to do with her. Elizabeth says if Ellen’s planning something it is her business. Jessica then snaps that NOTHING FUCKING MATTERS EXCEPT WHISKERS, AND YOU CAN ALL KISS HER PURPLE-CLAD ASS. And for half a second, that’s really satisfying, then Jessica blurts out the whole story of how Ellen’s going to call Lucy’s parents and let them know Lucy’s riding again.
Elizabeth tries to call the Bensons, but there’s no answer, and Jessica says to count her blessings, if Elizabeth can’t get hold of them, neither can Ellen.
The next day is the day of the show… so yeah, Thunder’s been plaited up overnight. Is that a thing? Over here you get up at 4am on a show day and wash your pony’s tail, do the plaiting, and then frantically get changed in the tack room, somehow running late despite the fact that you all budgeted your time and you appeared to be sticking to the schedule, but half an hour just vanished and you don’t know how.
Elizabeth warns Lucy of Ellen’s plan. Lucy hopes she can get through it before Ellen locates her parents. Lucy also says hi to Alison Thatcher, who banters with her that Thunder is probably the second best horse at the show today. And that’s… surprisingly nice. I really expected her to be a spiteful glory-hog, given the way that Lucy’s been all eye-flashingly stern every time her name comes up. But I suppose Ellen’s filling that role.
Elizabeth notices that Ellen is also at the show ground, and surrounded by Unicorns. Only Jessica seems detached and disinterested from the group. And that’s a nice little detail.
Lucy confronts Ellen about her nasty little plan, and says that even if it worked, Alison would have beaten her, so third is the best she can hope for. I’m sorry, I know trash talking at sports events is a thing, but it’s sooooo out of place at a horse show for a Brit. Equestrian events really play to the cliché of us all being polite and self-deprecating, and saying things like, “I’ve had a lovely day, and just taking part makes me feel like a winner.” Therefore, I kind of want Lucy to fall off and never be allowed to ride again. [Wing: WHAT’S THE POINT OF DOING IT IF YOU DON’T TRASH TALK AND TRY TO WIN?!] [Raven: Trash talk is a little cheap, to be honest. I’m down with being all Winner Winner Chicken Dinner, but a fellow does have standards.]
Elizabeth catches up with Jessica and asks how Whiskers is doing – no change. Jessica lowers her voice and says she’s obligated to cheer for Ellen, but tell Ted and co good luck.
The competition starts, and people keep riding in on purebred horses, instead of the English pony book way of, “A girl on a dapple grey entered next, she had a cool look of determination, which I envied…” – which isn’t a direct quote from any of the pony books I own, but is close enough to all of them.
They note that the third jump keeps flummoxing everyone, and they note this with surprise, because nobody walked the course. If they had walked the course, they would have noticed the jump was strange. They would have had a confab on how to tackle it. But this book was not written by horsey people or for horsey people, so instead this third jump is a complete shock to everyone, which is really not how it works.
Alison Thatcher does an effortless clear round, but Ted reassures her that Lucy is a better rider, which just makes me want to punch everyone. I’m sick of this fucking “You’re the best, winning is important, count my trophies, bitches!” vibe of this whole fucking plot. Just die in a pot-hunting fire, stoked with blue ribbons and motherfucking arrogance. [Raven: Being Devil’s Elbow a bit, but I thought you said pot hunting to save a horse, as in what Ted’s doing, was actually fine? If so, then Ted keeping his focus on that seems perfectly fine to me too.] [Dove: Yes, I did say that, but it’s still so sickening to hear literally “You’re better than her” – what’s wrong with, “Don’t worry that she got a clear round, you know you can do this, you’re a good rider.” It’s the ugliness of constantly saying “that person over there? Worse rider than you. That one on the bay? Fucking shit. The girl on the magnificent Arabian? Fucking waste of humanity. You are so much better than them. I hope they die.”]
Lucy enters the ring, takes the first two jumps flawlessly, and as she’s approaching the terrible third, her parents arrive, yelling her name and waving their hands as if they’re actively trying to make their daughter fall off a horse.
I HATE THIS FUCKING STUPID WASTE OF A FUCKING PLOT. I JUST CARE ABOUT JESSICA AND WHISKERS AND LITERALLY EVERYTHING ELSE IN THIS STUPID FUCKING BOOK CAN FUCK THE FUCK OFF.
Naturally, Lucy does a clear round, and the parents flap and worry, but eventually decide that she might as well ride if she wants to. Alison Thatcher compliments her round (hi Alison, you might be my favourite person in the horse part of this book).
Five riders make the jump off: Lucy, Alison, Ellen and two plebs we don’t care about. As Ellen starts her round, the Unicorns do a Booster routine, causing Snow White to have a panic attack and refuse the jump, sending Ellen sailing over her head and the jump. (This causes Ellen to chase them all across the grounds for ages.) [Raven: Literally the best thing in the book.] [Dove: Nope. Whiskers.]
She’s lucky, I had a similar thing. I was approaching a jump, and a moron mother was sitting right next to the jump outside the ring. As Wonder Pony and I got close, moron mother shook a plastic bag. Wonder Pony performed an emergency stop that left gouges in the grass, and I went over and landed on my back on one of the pins that held the poles in place. I managed to get to my feet, but my back was wrong for months afterwards. It would twinge and the pain would be so intense, I’d drop my reins and go boneless and just slither off the pony. It was horrible. And of course, being around hearty people, I was constantly told, “Get right back on after you fall off.”
Anyway, obviously Alison and Lucy do perfect rounds. Lucy is the best, naturally, because being the best is the most important thing in the world. [Wing: I’m glad you’ve finally embraced our culture.]
Alison congratulates her, and then says that Starfire is for sale again, his new owner couldn’t get along with him, so she should buy him back and they can go back to competing. Obviously, Lucy’s parents will do just that.
At home, Elizabeth comes home just as Jessica is heading out. She’s off to see Whiskers, who’s had two fish-shakes already and wants more, he’s feeling much better.
The final chapter has Jessica and her eco-friends getting ready to release Whiskers into the wild. Elizabeth reassures Jessica that Whiskers will be fine, and Jessica says, she knows that, but what about her? She’ll never see him again. #BlessJess
When they set Whiskers free, he pauses at the water’s edge, looking back at Jessica for reassurance. She tells him to go back to his family, and he slowly does so. She sees him reunite with other seals, and tries not to cry.
[Raven: Yay Whiskers!]
It ends with this exchange.
“Are you going to be OK?” Elizabeth asked.
“Of course,” Jessica said, wiping away a tear. “You know me, Elizabeth. I don’t even like animals!”
There’s not even a lead-in to the next book. Which is fine, because it’s hard to foreshadow something Jessica’s going to do on a whim.
The A-plot can fuck off. I hated every moment of it. Ted is just pointless, Elizabeth is a busy-body, and Lucy is far more mysterious than she needs to be. I hate the WIN! WIN! WIN! mentality of the book, and the way everyone measures Lucy’s competence on a horse by how many blue ribbons she has. Just everything about that plot is horrible.
Jessica and Whiskers, however… OMG, THE LOVE IS SO REAL. I think it was very clear in my recap just how much I enjoyed this plot. Eco-Jess is one of the best things ever. I love her attachment to Whiskers, the way she realises the Unicorns are a bit shallow, how offended she was when Lila said Whiskers was just a seal. Just everything. My heart.
[Raven: My opinion of thios book is pretty much a homeopathic version on Dove’s opinion: same in overall content, but massively watered down. I disliked the A Plot, but it didn’t set me raging. I liked the B Plot, but it didn’t make me cry joyful tears. It was alright at either end, I guess. Not particulalry polarising. 6/10, would be unlikely to revisit. A bit like Whiskers, really.]
I am Dove (she/her). I am: Team Jessica (Sweet Valley); Team Bad Guy (Point Horror); Team Geiger (Making Out); Team Nina/Lucas (Making Out); and I am the voice of a claymation cow named Daisy, and I was in an advert for Fairy Liquid in the 80s.