"Rescuing" Horses, World War I Style: Consciousness-Raising British Horse Novel Wins Literary Prize

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It's the end of the summer. Maybe you will be sitting next to a horse trailer at a show this weekend, waiting for your class, or be stuck waiting for the hay truck, or be flying back to college. You need something to read, right?

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The book I have saved for this holiday weekend is Our Horses in Egypt by Rosalind Belben. It's a British novel about the unfair thing that happens to military horses at the end of wars. And what some people try to do about it.

What's amazing is that I received a notice today that the book has won the James Tait Black Prize for Fiction, a highly coveted literary award from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

The book features parallel stories: Philomena, a horse serving in Egypt during the First World War, and Griselda, her former owner who travels across Egypt to find her.

Random House's web site describes the plot: A lady's foxhunter's named Philomena, fat and lazy when she is requisitioned from an English field at the start of the First World War, sails for Egypt with the territorial regiment, the Dorset Yeomanry. She serves faithfully, charging the dervishes in the Western Desert and enduring the privations of Allenby's great campaign in Palestine. She recovers from wounds to swelter through a summer in the Jordan Valley. She takes part in the triumphant advance on Damascus - only to be sold off in Cairo among the 22,000 horses left behind by the British War Office after the Armistice.

Years later, in 1921, the forceful Griselda Romney, now a war widow, has discovered that her old hunter, Philomena, could be still alive. With her six-year-old daughter, and of course a Nanny in tow, Mrs Romney sets out to Egypt, to find Philomena and to rescue her?.

And that's just the beginning.

As you can see, the concept of "rescuing" horses is not a new one. Nor, in hindsight, are the adventures of women trying to travel independently, without male protection, far far from home in a country where war-weary horses didn't get any reward for their efforts. It's the way this story is told, and the time period it portrays that mirrors our current day, that will take your breath away.

And the judges said:

"That Philomena's stoicism and duty is as apparent as her owner's is testament to Belben's ability to give life and language to animals as well as humans. She does this without any sense of strain or anthropomorphism, through a rich and innovative use of language that never slips into the sentimental."

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When interviewed, Belben (in photo, at left) said simply, "I'm very gratified and honored. I'm also rather touched. ? Our Horses in Egypt is, after all, resolutely equine."

And so are we.

Order Our Horses in Egypt by Rosalind Belben through your local independent bookstore or call horse-book specialist Robin Bledsoe in Cambridge, Massachusetts: 617 576 3634.

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