Read While You Walk

Early this fall I started noticing black plastic stakes along the path I walk daily behind the West Tisbury School. They were maybe three and a half or four feet high and about a hundred feet apart (that’s a guesstimate — I didn’t think to pace the distance). Usually there were two side by side.

Salamander survey grid marker, with warning. Jan. 2015.

Maybe part of a science experiment? I speculated. In the late fall of 2014, little red flags just off this same trail alerted me to the presence of signs on the ground marking a grid. Turned out the students were doing a “salamander survey”: I blogged about it in “Sign of the Salamander.

Then colorful pictures, laminated to give them heft against wind and rain, appeared on the stakes. After following the trail a while, I realized they had to be pages from a kids’ book. Not a science experiment!

After a couple of days the pictures disappeared. This made me sad: oak leaves were turning brown and falling, and the illustrations gave welcome color to my walk.

One day, near where the story trail had ended, I came across a large vertical container on a two-wheeled cart — think “golf bag,” though this clearly wasn’t one: it contained several of the black stakes.

The mystery was solved the morning Tam and I encountered Stephanie Dreyer on the path, hauling the two-wheeled cart and mounting laminated book pages on stakes. She’s the school librarian, and she’s been doing “story walks” with the kids.

What a great idea, thought I. Even if Covid-19 weren’t a factor, going outdoors during class time has to be fun for the kids, and turning pages becomes a bit of an adventure.

The first pages of Fritz and the Beautiful Horses

Not long afterward, another story walk appeared on my usual morning route, along the dirt track at the edge of the Nat’s Farm field, just off Old County Road. Though at least half a mile from the school, this walk also featured a kids’ book: Fritz and the Beautiful Horses, written and illustrated by Jan Brett. Nearly all the walkers, joggers, and cyclists I see in this area are grown-ups, but the choice was not surprising: adjacent to this field is the former Misty Meadows horse farm, now Misty Meadows Equine Learning Center.

Of course I read the story, station by station, with my canine companion wondering why I was stopping so often. Fritz, it turned out, is an adorable, shaggy, Shetland-type pony. The “beautiful horses” live in a walled city whose citizens don’t allow non-beautiful horses inside the gates. Fritz has to live outside. When he tries to get their attention by emulating the beautiful horses, the citizens laugh at him.

Fritz, I knew at once — no psychic skills required — was going to save the day when the beautiful horses couldn’t or wouldn’t. The only question was how.

Fritz does his best to imitate the elegance of the beautiful horses. The citizens laugh at him. I think he’s pretty cute.

Sure enough, when adults and children from the walled city are out for a ride, the bridge over a rushing stream collapses after the adults have crossed it. The beautiful horses are terrified of the water, and so are their child riders. So sure-footed, dependable Fritz ventures into the stream and ferries the children across one by one. For his heroism Fritz is celebrated, allowed into the walled city, and made much of by the children. The end.

I’m a sucker for horse stories and horse pictures, but Fritz and the Beautiful Horses pissed me off. True, it was first published 40 years ago, but it’s still in print and, if the Goodreads reviews are any indication, most contemporary adult readers love it.

In a way that’s not surprising: as a society we do tend to love tales of plucky underdogs who in a crisis prove their worth, everyone lives happily ever after, and we congratulate ourselves for knowing that beauty is only skin deep yadda yadda yadda.

Thing is, Fritz and the Beautiful Horses provides zero evidence that the people in the walled city have learned anything. They’ve made an exception for the heroic pony, but that’s it. The city’s walls are still up, and only the most beautiful horses are allowed within, but since Fritz is now included, maybe they’ve convinced themselves that they recognize true worth when they see it?

What bugs me most about the story is that both Fritz and, presumably, the author see that, long before the bridge collapses, the children are afraid of their big, spirited beautiful horses. As horsefolk put it, they’re overhorsed. They don’t have the skill and/or the confidence to manage their mounts. Trust me on this: horses pick up on their riders’ uneasiness. It makes them nervous and more likely to spook or bolt. When a thousand-pound horse panics, serious injury can result, to both horse and rider.

And the citizens in the walled city are fine with this! Even after Fritz has proven himself sure-footed and dependable, and after the children have learned to trust him, do they ever ride him again? Not that we see. If I were those adults, I would have scoured the countryside for more Fritzes for the children to ride.

I probably don’t have to say that from the book’s first pages the walled city made me think of — well, a certain island that doesn’t need walls around it because the ocean does the job. Are we collectively as elitist and as clueless as the citizens in Fritz and the Beautiful Horses? No way! But we do have a collective tendency to celebrate plucky ponies while missing the bigger picture.

At the end, everyone loves Fritz, but will the kids ever get to ride him again?

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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