Book encourages young adults to appreciate life

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 10, 2013

“Catch Rider,” by Jennifer H. Lyne. Clarion Books. 282 pp. $16.99.

Not many people have had to ride their way through a series of high-level horse shows with nothing but backyard riding experience, their horse-trader uncle as a trainer and a string of untrained horses to work with. Yet everyone has had their green horses to ride, whether in the arena of work, education, relationships — or dreams.
Jennifer Lyne’s novel, “Catch Rider,” is the story of a teenage girl’s quest to become a catch rider — someone who shows other people’s horses — and build a future out of what she loves. Yet hers is more than just another story about another aspiring rider’s run for the ribbons. In the midst of her struggle to prove herself, Sidney Criser must also contend with myriad family problems — the lingering pain from her father’s sudden death, her mother’s passiveness, her uncle’s sporadic drunkenness, and the unwelcome presence of her mother’s charming but potentially violent boyfriend. On top of it all, Sid’s family is desperately poor in a mountain town where most kids’ futures lie in a job at the paper mill.
This complexity makes “Catch Rider” a powerful, down-to-earth work. The rural setting lends it nostalgia that clashes with contemporary issues of shattered families, overwhelmed public schools and struggling urban development. The book is in some ways a commentary on class distinctions and effects of poverty on families and individuals.
Sid, incredibly self-reliant, has strikingly fewer resources than the wealthy riders she competes against. She makes most basic life decisions for herself and feels immense pressure to provide for and protect her indecisive mother. In some cases this compels her to step over the line legally, driving underage to work and keeping a gun in her room. While this makes the book somewhat controversial, it also gives a voice to a region and social class often neglected in literature.
The equine focus also serves as a moderating factor by giving Sid’s struggles a refreshing context and serving as a lifeline for the characters themselves, redeeming them from the personal and social chaos around them.
The work’s complexity is also the source of its powerful message to its young adult audience. Sid competes in an equestrian discipline called hunt seat equitation, in which riders guide their horses through a course of jumps and are judged on correctness of their position in the saddle.
The rich girls Sid competes against buy highly-trained horses that need little guidance and so allow them to “perch and pose” while the horse works. Sid, unable to afford this kind of mount, must ride half-broke horses who demand savvy horsemanship in addition to a good seat. But Sid has earned her skills, and uses them to amazing results. In this sense the story’s message is about the power of perseverance. Yet it is more than perseverance that gets Sid what she wants.
As she discovers in the final rounds of competition, the people whose lives seem most fulfilling — the stable hands she works with, an old man who lives alone with his brother and sister in the mountains — are those who enjoy even the simplicities of their lives.
The people who impress her are those who hold on to contentment even as they dream — those who don’t care what others think of them as long as they’re doing what they intend to do and enjoy it. And regardless of all her diligence, Sid cannot possibly survive the rigors of competition without the support of her uncle and friends.
The novel is narrated by Sid in a voice that reflects her tough personality and rural upbringing. The narration is mingled with explanations of horse facts, especially early on. While not always forward-paced, the plot is engaging and combines with short chapters to keep the reader going. Lyne’s strongest point is probably her creation of character, especially in dialogue, and she tends to reveal traces of sensitivity in even the toughest personalities.
Lyne grew up riding difficult horses. A first-time novelist, she has written and produced two feature films as a co-founder of Sharpshooter Pictures.
Like a hunt seat equitation class, life tends to “judge” individuals, not by what they are riding, but by how they ride it. They may be fortunate enough to have wealth and stability, or they may, like Sid, be stuck with the roughest circumstances.
Whatever the case, Lyne’s “Catch Rider” reminds us that it is our appreciation for what we have and our readiness to use it for what we love that can make the difference between a life well-lived and a failure. After all, it is the ability and willingness to ride anything that makes a catch rider.