Eighteen months ago I reviewed Sarah Maury Swan’s Young Adult (YA) novel Terror’s Identity, which tells the story of family who has to move from their home and assume secret identities because of the father’s work fighting terrorism. The story was told through the point of view of the teenage son and it was quite the action-packed thriller.
Emily’s Ride to Courage—although it shares similarities with Terror’s Identity, such as the upheaval of a family because of a parent’s commitment to fighting evil in the world—is a much different book in tone and pace.
Emily is not only the title character, but our narrator. Readying for her seventh grade year, with all of the self-doubt, excess energy, and shifting emotions of a girl her age, Emily is dealing with the news that her mother, a doctor, is going to Afghanistan to serve in the medical corps. Because Emily’s father travels a great deal for work, Emily and her 14-year-old dance-obsessed sister Jen will be spending the summer with their grandfather, a man well set in his ways.
I bet you already see the conflicts that might come.
Emily’s narration is somewhere between a polished “what I did on my summer vacation” essay and a series of “dear diary” entries. This takes nothing away from the quality of the book. Swan has plenty of subtext and storytelling framework to keep the action moving forward, an ability she demonstrated in Terror’s Identity.
Swan, a long-time horse enthusiast, is writing about a subject that she obviously knows well. Having once been very close with a college-level equestrian and having an 18-year-old daughter who has been riding and caring for horses since she was 5, I was able to both apply what I have learned over the years to my experience with the story and talk with my daughter about some of the details of horse health and training that Swan includes in Emily’s Ride to Courage.
My daughter has also made me a fan of the Canadian mega-hit TV show Heartland, which takes place on a horse farm and features pre-teen and teenage girls that have similar journeys to self-knowledge and maturity by working with horses as Emily. The grandfather in Heartland is the archetype of the old grizzly with a heart of gold, and Emily’s grandfather shares those traits—a combination of wisdom and sensibility that is important in our fast-paced, “modern” world. I was lucky enough to have all four of my grandparents through early adulthood, and their advice and role-modeling was invaluable during my teenage years. The trope of the lost pre-teen taking solace and confiding in an animal is a gem, and Swan uses it well. As Emily tries to deal with her grandfather’s expectations, opinions (which are borderline superstitions), and habits, her sister’s growing frustration with being stuck in the middle of nowhere without the comfort of her first love—dance—and then the news that their mother has gone missing, we really feel for her. She is truly doing the best she can under tough circumstances, and watching the arc of her development unfold through her narration will be empowering for YA readers.
On top of her familial challenges, Emily is trying to conquer two major fears—riding horses and math. Even as a nearly 50-year-old man, I sympathized with her on both counts. I’ve done better at the former than the latter.
Emily’s best friend in the story is a horse named Gemini. Together they become the heroes of the story—learning to trust one another, standing up for each other in low moments, and working together in the heart-racing climax.
Emily also has help from a girl her age named Kat. Swan uses Kat and her family to widen the world for Emily and Jen from the farm to the town at the midpoint of the book.
I am a fan of any book that empowers our youth—that reminds them through the art of storytelling that our passions drive and sustain us through the tough times, and the obstacles they present, if we are brave enough to face them, help us grow and add beauty and satisfaction to our lives that become increasingly valuable the older we get.
Emily’s mother is a welcome role model. In how many books, even ones aimed at YA, are the kids totally on their own, their parents creating more obstacles than they are helping their children navigate? With large amounts of service women and men still over seas and the threat of new wars constantly looming as we approach the close of the second decade of the twenty-first century, Emily’s Ride to Courage is an invaluable resource for the thousands of families affected by this reality.
I applaud Sarah Maury Swan for being so generous an author as to share her talent to make the world a more manageable place for her young readers.
TITLE: Emily’s Ride to Courage
AUTHOR: Sarah Maury Swan
PUBLISHER: CreateSpace, 2017