The Winter Pony
In 1910, Englishman Robert Falcon Scott and Norwegian Roald Amundsen set out on separate expeditions to be the first to reach the South Pole. Each is determined to win the race and resolves to do whatever it takes to triumph. Amundsen gets there first.
THE WINTER PONY is not about the winner, but about the man who didn’t win the race. Scott is Iain Lawrence’s hero, and, as he says, he “loathed Amundsen” because Amundsen “kept his plans a secret so that he might dash to the Pole ahead of the Englishman. He had stolen the triumph but not the glory.”
And the story is told from a unique perspective --- that of a pony. Scott started on his journey with 19 ponies, none of which survived the horrific ordeal. But the one that went the longest distance tells the story from his point of view. Scott’s men give the pony the unlikely name of James Pigg in honor of a character from a book.
James Pigg’s journey is a long and harrowing one. The pony tells of all the hardships he faced during Scott’s race for the Pole. For two years he is exposed to mind-numbing cold and treacherous terrain. He endures long, cold days with no sun. And twice his life is threatened, but he survives until the expedition is within a few miles of its goal. The pony also tells us about the perils Scott’s men faced. One of them goes out in a blizzard to die in hopes of saving the lives of the others, and they all face food shortages and various degrees of frostbite.
In the author’s notes, Lawrence tells us that he chose to tell the story from the horse’s point of view because he thought the narrative would be “warmhearted and fun.” It turns out to be anything but. He also notes that the pony wasn’t present when some of the actual events took place, but the storyline implies that the horse witnessed them. As Lawrence explains, “Because the real James Pigg did not see every part of the expedition, I thought it was alright for him to imagine that he did. A pony’s memories, I decided, can be unreliable.” There are four scenes that the pony was not actually present for, but Lawrence imagined how the pony would tell those story segments if he had been there.
Although most of the story is told from the pony’s point of view, in between those chapters, Lawrence has included accounts of the rivalry between Scott and Amundsen to keep it in historical perspective. This is not a lighthearted novel, but an honest one. The ordeal was brutal for both man and beast, and Lawrence doesn’t try to sugarcoat any of the details. THE WINTER PONY is a compelling and, for the most part, well-written book.
Reviewed by Christine M. Irvin on November 8, 2011