June 12, 2014

Taking the Reins

by Dayle Campbell Gaetz
Coteau Books
232 pp.
Ages 10-14 

Though only fourteen, Katherine Harris has already felt the need to take the reigns, figuratively- and literally-speaking, in order to help her family who'd come from England to make a new life for themselves in Canada.  The family's hopes had been dwindling, along with their savings, since an extended stay in San Francisco (before they reached Hope, BC) when they all had fallen ill and Katherine's older sister Susan died.  Then starting their farm, for which they are sorely ill-prepared, Katherine's father is mauled by a bear and requires medicine, and Katherine must retrieve her nineteen-year-old brother George who has run off in search of gold in the Cariboo.  Returning home on her bay mare, Nugget, Katherine's adventure masquerading as a boy and travelling with a guide, William, must be forgotten as she must return to behaviour befitting a young girl and think about selling Nugget for some much needed money.

Fortuitously, the man who purchases horses from miners returning from the Cariboo and takes them to Victoria for wealthy buyers is Mr. Charles Roberts, the very man who had given her Nugget as a thank-you for her sister Susan's devotion to his niece Baby Rose when his brother's family was also travelling from England.  Katherine hatches a plan with Mr. Roberts to enlist her parents to care for his store so that he might travel to Jamaica to visit his brother and family, that her parents might leave the farm even temporarily (though George would remain behind to tend to it), and that she might go to school in Victoria. And since Nugget would be sold in Victoria, Katherine might have opportunities to visit him.

Meanwhile, Emma Curtis, who is just shy of 14 years of age, is gifted with Nugget from her newly-found father, Tall Joe, who'd left her and her mother in England to find his riches in the new world.  Left destitute, and her mother dead, Emma had accepted the  opportunity to travel to Canada via brideship, although she skirted marriage by taking a position at the home of Governor and Mrs.Douglas.  Still too proud, too angry and too scared to show herself as she is, Emma is reluctant to accept Nugget, though her father insists she learn to ride as he intends to travel to the interior next spring to start his own farm.

Emma and Katherine become acquainted at Beckley Farm, where Nugget is boarded, and become friends, though they each keep secrets about themselves, afraid of being judged for their heritage, their weaknesses, and griefs.  But the two girls must sidestep those issues in order to work together to find the happiness they both deserve.

You will hear me say time and time again that I am not a horse person.  My greatest affinity is to cats.  And, though I will always share an affection and compassion for all animals, my understanding of horses is negligible.  But Taking the Reins allowed me to share in the bond between Katherine and Nugget, while understanding Emma's initial trepidation for this large animal.  Even more, though, Dayle Campbell Gaetz made Taking the Reins into a story about facing an uncertain future in the context of prejudice and insecurity, emotional and financial, and allowing others into your life so that you might move forward.  Nugget is the bridge that allows Katherine and Emma to share of themselves and see beyond their needs and instead focus on what others need.  It's an inspiriting story that could be from any time, but told especially well in the tumultuous settlement times in British Columbia in the 1860's when new ways had to be built on the land and between people in order to survive.  Fortunately, women such as Katherine and Emma, as well as Susan and Mrs. Douglas, showed the courage and good will to take the reigns for more than just themselves.

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