Wild Ride by Ann Hagedorn Auerbach

I’ve been wanting to read Wild Ride for almost four years now. Maybe three months after I moved to Lexington, a friend and coworker was reading it and said it was really good. Fast forward four years, and I finally got the chance to read it, and I honestly think that I wouldn’t have appreciated the book as much as I do now.

See, being in the Bluegrass has really broadened my Thoroughbred knowledge, and I’ve gained a deeper respect for the industry in the area. Despite what you read in the media- because there is always a dark side of each industry- it is truly regarded as the Sport of Kings for good reason. Generations of families taking the chance on the next superstar, and pouring hours, years, lifetimes of dedication (and money) into their horses. Not only have I gained a deeper understanding of the industry, but I’ve also learned my way around (for the most part) Lexington and the surrounding area. I haven’t gone full local (because I still can’t stop acting like a tourist or shake my New England accent), but while reading Wild Ride, I could easily picture the locations mentioned, or the events occurring.

The byline of Wild Ride is “The Tragic Fall of Calumet Farm, Inc., America’s Premier Racing Dynasty”, but Auerbach doesn’t just rehash the demise- she delves into the history of Calumet from the very origins of it’s founder, William Monroe Wright.

The reader learns about the self-made businessman who eventually decided to move from Chicago to the Bluegrass and start his own harness horse breeding operation. From there, his son Warren takes over the family operation, despite being at odds with the way his father ran the place. He converts what becomes Calumet Farm into a thoroughbred operation, and an empire is born. Though strong in business practice, the younger Wright had a lot of horsemanship skills to learn, but his progress turned out derby winners and two Triple Crown winners. Unfortunately, his health took a turn for the worse, and when he passed on, his wife and son became benefactors of his estate, and his wife Lucille inherited the farm, along with gigantic sums of money.

Lucille decides to keep the farm, and in doing so blossoms into one of the social elite. She meets Gene Markey and remarries, and the Markeys, adding a touch of glamour that the Wright men did not achieve, take Calumet to up the social ladder. While Lucille enjoyed being  Lady of Calumet, her son Warren Jr. was moved to the wayside. He didn’t care for the farm life, and had many peculiarities that made him difficult to work with. On top of that, there was some discrepancies about him being the legitimate son of Warren Wright Sr. Lucille did very little to defend her son because he was seen as an embarrassment in her circle. This feud caused much heartache for his wife and four children, and eventually the Wright family became estranged to the Markey family, most so after Warren Jr. succumbs to an early death.

Knowing fully about the family feud, Warren Jr.’s eldest daughter, Cindy, marries a man named J.T. Lundy. Determined to run Calumet, he pressures and fights with Lucille to run the farm. Lucille and Lundy stubbornly spar, neither one giving up, until Lucille’s age catches up to her. Through the will of Warren Sr., the farm is finally turned over the Wright children, and because of their disinterest in the farm due to all the past heartache, Lundy takes over in care of the Wrights. From here, as secretary Margaret Glass notes, Armageddon begins with the fall of Calumet.

If you live in the area, you can still drive past the farm, and see for yourself the images that Auerbach describes- the white double fencing, the devils-red trim on white washed barns, the acres of famous Kentucky bluegrass dotted with horses. But the Calumet you see isn’t the dynasty that existed prior to 1990, and reading about the fall brought chills to my spine.

If you’re a horse junky like me, or interested in historical novels (Kentucky history in particular), horse racing and breeding, or crime novels, Wild Ride is a must read.

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

“She gave me a complicated smile. “You’ve heard the joke, haven’t you? Are you married or do you live in Kenya?“”

When my book-loving coworker suggested I read this novel, it didn’t take me long to reserve it at the library, nor did it take me long to read it. 350 pages, each one full of a romantic view of life in the 1920’s British East Africa as experienced by Beryl Clutterbuck. Though a fictional novel, Clutterbuck, who becomes Markham after her second marriage, is actually a nonfictional character, as well as the others described in the novel. When I finished reading, I couldn’t stop myself from doing some more historical research, trying to piece together the timeline and get better images of the people involved. I love when a book does that to me- inspires me to learn more.

Anyways, we are introduced to Beryl as a young girl living with her family in colonial Kenya. Her father is running a horse farm as a trainer and breeder of racing thoroughbreds, and Beryl wants to follow in his footsteps. When her mother and brother leave to return to England, she decides Kenya is her home, and she wants to stay with her father on the farm. As she reaches her teen years, she rebels against her father’s wishes to become a more suitable woman by taunting her new governess and running away from boarding school. She isn’t interested in becoming the expected civilized housewife. Growing up in the bush, she’s followed her best friend Kibii step for step as he learned from his tribe how to be a warrior. Matching his courage and skills, Beryl knows she can take on any man’s job with determination and hard work, and succeed. However, when she reaches the age of sixteen, the tables are turned when she learns her father’s business has gone bankrupt, and he must sell the farm and train at another stable, leaving Beryl to decide if she should stay on the farm, go work for her father, or become a wife.

She decides to marry Jock, a man who just moved to the colony near her father’s farm. The merge leaves Beryl with her father’s horses, but also with a loveless relationship. When it becomes obvious that the marriage isn’t going to work out, Beryl decides to separate from Jock to go work as a trainer on her friend and mentor’s farm. A turning point for Beryl, she becomes the first English licensed female horse trainer (at least in Kenya, maybe the world). As her reputation builds for her training, she also gains a reputation for being a nontraditional wife, if you catch my drift. Despite her successes at the racetrack, her personal life causes her difficulties in keeping clients. After some time, she requests a divorce from her husband. He isn’t willing to grant the divorce because he doesn’t want to be seen as a man who can’t control his wife, nor take a hit to his reputation. They fight- him by drinking and getting into physical altercations, her by holding her ground and occasionally another man. As her relationship with Jock flames out, a new one with Denys Finch- Hatton fires up.

While reading, not only does the personal drama keep things interesting, but the romance of living in such wild country in Africa draws you in. I loved imagining the red clay, the safari trips, the rain season, the flamingo flocks near where Beryl exercised her horses… all the imagery was lovely, even in terrifying moments. Because of McLain’s wordsmithery, I was living right with Beryl in the environment that she loved so much.

With so much depth and strength to the characters, the setting, and the overall complexity of human relationships, I’d recommend it to anyone, and especially for those with the additional interest in the female empowerment and equality. I’m amazed at what barriers Beryl broke back in the 1920/1930s, of how much has changed since pioneers like her broke traditional female roles, and of how we are still pushing to get through the glass ceiling today. “Circling the Sun” is a must read.

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

It’s been over 10 years since this book was released and became a bestseller, and six years since the movie came out… so I guess you can say I’m a little late to the party, but I’m all caught up on what the fuss was all about. So I’ve decided to do a summary and a movie comparison, just to refresh your memory and preserve mine.

At age ninety (or ninety three, he can’t remember), life in the nursing home is something Jacob Jankowski just can’t get used to. He’s sick of the boredom, of the geriatric food, of the overly cautious nurses. When the circus rolls through town and excitement buzzes around him, Jacob starts to reflect on the early years of his life…

After the tragic loss of his parents the week before his final veterinary exams, Jacob decides to run away to restart anew. What he didn’t realize at first was that the train he decided to jump belonged to the property of Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth- a circus train. A man named Camel initiates Jacob to circus life and sets him up to be introduced to Big Al, the circus ringleader. Upon hearing that Jacob (almost, though technicalities didn’t matter in the circus business) had a Cornell veterinary degree, Big Al places Jacob with his right hand man August, the equestrian director and superintendent of animals, as the menagerie veterinarian, and bunks him with clown Kinko, aka Walter, and his dog Queenie. Kinko isn’t too happy about the idea, and he and Jacob don’t make friends too quickly, but eventually after Jacob has a few rough first days they make amends.

Under August’s wing, Jacob starts his new job by evaluating Marlena’s horse. She is a performer (aka kinker) with a string of horses, a star attraction, and so happens to be August’s wife. Jacob is smitten the first time he sets eyes on her, but knows not to show it. After he diagnoses Silver Star, he learns pretty quickly not to trust August. He finds out he’s a temperamental man who lacks sympathy for both humans and animals alike, and he’ll take whatever means necessary to keep control of those around him. So when the circus manages to pick up an elephant names Rosie, Jacob finds himself playing middle man to protect her, and Marlena, from August.

As Marlena and Jacob grow closer, August becomes more and more overprotective, and soon Jacob’s life is being threatened. At the same time, many of the workers in the circus are becoming unsettled, unpaid, and ready for an uproar. As things come to a head under the big top, even the animals start picking sides.

Now, in comparison to the movie, the book has more depth, character development, and in my opinion, more action…so it’s easy for me to say it was better than the movie. Here’s what was missing or different:

  1. Movie Elderly Jacob does NOT look ninety, nor is his mobility a struggle.
  2. Big Al isn’t mentioned in the movie. August is portrayed as the ringleader instead.
  3. The diagnosis and demise of Silver Star is much quicker in the movie, and Marlena’s character development is cut short, effecting what should be growth in the relationship with Jacob. The book allows for this growth and development.
  4. Rosie’s introduction in the movie is close enough to the book, but her character development and relationship with Jacob is cut short, making her participation in the climax of the movie less believable and dramatic.
  5. The big fight between August and Jacob, and the consequent break-up of August and Marlena largely differs in the movie. The movie makes it seem that after the fight, both Jacob and Marlena plan to run away to Ringling (the circus in competition with Benzini), that they knew then and there that they were going to be together. But in the book, Marlena knows she has to go back to the circus and August, and even after their tryst reminds Jacob that they can’t be together since she’s married.
  6. In the book, when Jacob returns to the circus after the fight between him and August, he talks to Big Al and says that Marlena will reconcile with August if she’s given space and time. Big Al buys the lie, and this allows some time for Jacob and Walter to get Camel to Providence, to be picked up by his family. But after a few weeks, Big Al becomes unconvinced and figured out that Jacob is actually working against him. This is when Jacob’s life becomes threatened, as well as the lives of Walter and Camel. This B-story is mostly ignored or skipped over in the movie.
  7. Book Jacob, after his conscience catches up to him, leaves the knife on a pillow on the empty side of the bed beside August. In the movie, Marlena is in the bed with August and sees Jacob’s attempted murder and retreat. When Jacob returns to the car that he shared with Walter and Camel, he realizes they’ve been red-lighted on August and Big Al’s orders, and feels guilty for taking Walter’s knife when it could have protected them.
  8. In the book, Jacob tells a workman he trusts about the red-lighting, and then relays it to Marlena, who also confesses that she’s pregnant. Finally admitting it to herself, she know that if she wants to be with Jacob, they have to run for it. The red-lighting is the catalyst for the chaos and the pregnancy is the final push for the relationship between Jacob and Marlena, and it’s downplayed in the movie in comparison to the book.
  9. The final scene in the movie shows Elderly Jacob complaining about how his oldest son, Walter, should have picked him up at the nursing home and brought him to the circus, and then asking if the guy was going to hire him into the circus. This made me so annoyed because in the book, the guy who Elderly Jacob is telling his story to is really empathetic to Jacob, and when the cops come looking for the elderly runaway, the guy covers for Jacob, telling the cops that the elderly was his father. Once the cops leave, Jacob broaches the subject of coming back to the circus because he knows the man understands that the circus felt more like home than the nursing home ever did. And for the love of God, the son’s name is Simon, not Walter.

So as I said, I know I’m behind the times, but I had this book in a pile that I just hadn’t gotten around to reading and I’m glad I picked it up. Definitely worth the read, but in my opinion, if you read the book, don’t bother with the DVD. Leaving out so much of the character development and details, the movie didn’t do the book justice when I feel they could have. I would have watched the movie for another hour if they could have added those developments and details back in.