#638 Adventures at Canyon Camp
The Horse of The River: A Camp Canyon Falls Adventure
by Sari Cooper
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2019
$12.95 / 9781550178777
Reviewed by Margot Fedoruk
“Riding is where your heart is. Go. Commune with the horses and live in the woods,” says Gillian’s mother as she encourages her daughter to enjoy a month-long trip at a horseback riding camp near Lytton. On the car ride to the bus, her father tries to ease her fears with bad horse puns, “ I hope you brought your jacket,” he says, “I’ve heard it can get pretty colt up there when it’s time to hit the hay.” Twelve-year-old Gillian has never been away from her family and is so anxious that she is bombarded with warnings from the little voice in her head that she has given the name Stella.
Gillian continues to struggle with doubts and fears when she first arrives at camp. After a ghost story around the campfire, the next morning she wakes up and reflects that:
It hadn’t been the best night’s sleep. She wasn’t used to crickets all night, and the wind whistled as it passed through cracks in the cabin’s roof. The bunk beds also creaked whenever someone rolled over. And every time she drifted to sleep, images of a ghost horse galloped through her mind.
This book covers plenty of subjects: homesickness, sibling and group dynamics, learning a natural style of horsemanship, and how to stay calm in a harrowing situation. The main protagonist, Gillian, learns how to make friends not only with difficult people but with a difficult paint horse nicknamed “The Beast.” Author Sari Cooper also allows her protagonist to discover that you can have a hobby that you enjoy without feeling the need to be competitive; in this case her love of swimming, something that her 16-year-old sister excels at.
The riding games and activities are well researched and feel realistic. They include guiding reluctant horses in an obstacle course through a hanging sheet, kicking a tethered soccer ball, and maneuvering a horse into a wading pool. Learning the commands to communicate with a horse are skills that will prove useful for Gillian later in the story. In between a myriad of horse camp activities and rising tension with some of the girls, Cooper provides bits of humorous dialogue:
“I heard he [the horse named General] ate a kid one year,” said a girl from cabin one.
“Shut up! He did not.” ….” Horses are vegetarians.
The Horse of the River highlights the best part of summer camp: ghost stories around a campfire, water fights, and trail rides. The no cellphone rule creates an interesting element to the story when readers meet some old-fashioned handwritten letters. It is fun to eavesdrop on Gillian’s correspondence with her older sister Alexis, who is busy training with her swim team in the city. Another nice touch is a two-page drawing of the terrain of Camp Canyon Falls along with a well-designed book cover, bearing an illustration of a dark horse with a flying main.
The fictional camp is set in the remote interior, amidst the high rocky ridges and cold rushing rivers near Lytton, populated with bears and other potentially dangerous wildlife. Although The Horse of The River is touted as an adventure story, it is not until the final four chapters that the real action begins — and it does deliver. Gillian must silence the voice in her head to keep calm in order to survive a challenging situation.
The back jacket suggests it is written for the 9 to 12 year-old crowd, but a prank that involves stealing some of the girl’s beloved stuffies would appeal to the younger end of the suggested audience. The book also contains opportunities to build up a stellar horse vocabulary, words including canter, trot, gait, and hackamore (a soft bitless bridle).
First-time author and physician Sari Cooper had her two daughters in mind when she wrote The Horse of the River; they were 8 and 12 when she was writing it. She dedicates the heart of the book to them. When asked why it was important for her to have a strong female character as the protagonist, Cooper explains that, “I wanted to portray these sorts of relationships and show the strength that girls and women can give to each other.”
Cooper got her idea for the story after a family horseback riding and rafting trip in New Zealand. She also used her cherished childhood memories of summer camp in Ontario.
The Horse of the River fits in with the long list of horse stories that children just can’t seem to get enough of. If you know a girl who loves horses and summer camp, this is a story that will appeal. And if your child gets hooked, there are more books to come, Cooper reveals: “The camp will face a risk in the future. There may be some changes to the surrounding landscape that threaten the environment and spook the horses, putting the kids at risk.”
If Sari Cooper had the goal of writing a book filled with a cast of strong positive female characters, she has succeeded.
Margot Fedoruk lives and works on Gabriola Island. Her publishing credits include personal essays in the Globe and Mail, Portal 2019, and Island Parent Magazine. She has a BA from the University of Winnipeg and is currently pursuing a creative writing degree at Vancouver Island University. She blogs here and here. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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