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Friday, January 14, 2011

Can you trace the heart of your story? Great racehorses like Secretariat can.

Several years ago, I read the essay "Mt. T's Heart," by novelist Jane Smiley, the first essay in the collection The Greatest Horse Stories Ever Told. I've been fascinated by the idea of "great hearts" ever since--both the hearts of horses, and the hearts of stories.  If the stories we love to read over and over again endure because of this hard-to-measure quality, how can we ensure that the heart of the story we're writing now will tick on and on?  If you could weigh the heart of your story—feel its pulse in the palm of your hand—could you trace its genetic greatness back to the works of the authors whom you most admire?  Would there be a “felt” line of descent between your story and the first story you ever read as a child that made your heart race, perhaps Mary O’Hara’s My Friend Flicka or John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony?  What do I mean by “felt line of descent?” Let’s use a metaphor and explore the literal and figurative “heart” of the race horse, SECRETARIAT. Like any great character (and any good character sketch), his story starts long ago…

Once upon a time (actually, it was Apri1 1, 1764), in a country whose coasts stretched between the Irish Sea to the northwest, the Celtic Sea to the southwest, and the North Sea to the east, a chestnut Thoroughbred colt was born. His owner the Duke of Cumberland christened the stud colt Eclipse and sold him to a sheep dealer. The sheep dealer sold half-interest in the horse to Captain O’Kelly, who was married to a brothel owner.

Eclipse would go on to be one of the world’s great racehorses. He died in 1789 and, as was the tradition in England, just his head, heart, and hooves were buried (now wouldn’t that make for a gripping scene). When the London surgeon performing the autopsy cut him open, he found that the racehorse had a massive heart weighing 14 pounds—6 pounds heavier than the heart of an average horse.

Pocahontas with colt
But greater even than Eclipse’s fame as a racehorse was his fame as a sire. In 1837, forty-eight years after his death, a progeny filly with a rather small frame was born. They named her Pocahontas and, though they didn’t know it at the time, she carried an X chromosome passed onto her by Eclipse’s daughter Everlasting. 150 years later this “large heart” gene would be passed down to one of the greatest horses the world has ever known.

In 1973 (the same year Jonathan Livingston Seagull was at the top of the bestseller list), Secretariat won the Triple Crown, setting track records and world records at the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont. He died at the age of 19 after siring more than 600 colts. His heart wasn’t put on a scale and weighed as Eclipse’s had been, but the veterinarian who performed the autopsy estimated the great champion’s heart at more than 22 lbs. He was a power-house.

Secretariat's Meadow
Secretariat was known by those who loved him as an animal with “great heart,” not just because of his stamina, but because of his passion for competing.  Kate Chenery Tweedy, who has loved him since her bell-bottom teenage days when she walked the same meadow as he did, shares his story in the exquisite new book, Secretariat's Meadow, co-authored with Leeanne Ladin.

How, then, does a heart fuel not only our legs, but also our dreams? How can a heart urge us to go the distance in the face of overwhelming obstacles, urge us to remain loyal in the face of betrayal, or urge us to keep writing that novel, or poem, or memoir, despite all odds against publication?  These are the questions that some of our greatest authors explore, filling the pages of the books we love with stories of champions whose victories cannot be measured by mere physical stamina or prowess, but who are heroic because they lift someone else up even as they themselves are falling down. Or, like John Steinbeck’s heroes, perhaps they are heroic not because of their greatness but because of their frailties. In Mary O’Hara’s young adult novel My Fiend Flicka, I could feel my own heart racing as young Ken McLaughlin rode down the mountain after seeing Rocket’s filly for the first time:

No dream he had ever had, no imagination of adventure or triumph could touch this moment. He felt as if he had burst out of his old self and was something entirely new—and that the world had burst into something new too. So this was it—this was what being alive meant—Oh, my filly, my filly, my beautiful—

Heart-filled prose. But Mary O’Hara didn’t finish Ken’s sentence for the reader. Instead, she left it to our imaginations, perhaps even to our pens. I like to think that she hoped we would write our own everlasting stories—ones that will be felt pulsing in the palms of the reader’s hands even as we race toward the finish line.
Kate Chenery Tweedy signing at
Denver Women's Press Club
Look toward that finish line. See who has gone before. Imagine their words and stories leading the way. Visualize that line of descent. Thank those who have already run the race for us, marking the trail, then look behind you and visualize those whose stories will follow yours, and cheer them on as well. I think this is what inspired Kate as she entered the emotionally-wrought terrain of her upbringing as the daughter of Penny Chenery, and as she walked in the same meadow where Secretariat had run.  "I thought about the love in people's voices as they talked about their Meadow days," Kate writes at the end of the book. "In the end, it was the land that made them all."  Take heart, and let the stories that have come before inspire you as well.

January 16-18, Kate Chenery Tweedy will be at the North American Veterinary Conference, Orlando, FLA signing books.  Important Links:  Event Calendar for Secretariat's Meadow Author Leeane Ladin's Book Tour Blog.  Free Rein Blog Talk Radio featuring Secretariat.

9 comments:

Nanette Levin said...

Page, what a wonderful way to consider heart. Admittedly, the books that grabbed me when I was a kid weren't quite so literary (although a lot of them were about horses), but I've come to better appreciate the masters. I guess you need to experience a horse with a big heart to really appreciate the full meaning. Secretariat certainly showed it - from afar for most of us. Thanks for sharing this.

Page Lambert said...

Hi Nanette. I know Kate Chenery Tweedy would tell you that Secretariat had a heart that embraced the world and embraced racing - he loved to run! My Arab Farside, who was Sheri's horse for many years before he came to live with me, has over 4000 endurance miles logged in. And he loved it!

Cathy Stengel said...

Dear Page, my heart swelled with the memory of Secretariat and how many of us loved him from afar. I really want to read Secretariat's Meadow, and hope I will get the chance to do that.

My Friend Flicka and Stormy shaped my childhood passion for horses, and feel the same way with their velvet faces leaning in for a "hug" as I do with Aesop who loves to tuck his head up under my chin so I can kiss his forehead, the place where his puppy smell will be forever.

My meadow was sprinkled with Nancy Drew and Clara Barton, every biography of young WOMEN in history...but there was a circle in the meadow, sacred circle...that's where the Bobbsey Twin books lived. Literary giants they were not, but they spoke my language. When I discovered that my father had discarded them all, a couple of friends helped me find some in used bookstores. Treasures from the meadow.

Page Lambert said...

Oh, Cathy, how sad that your beloved books were discarded, but how wonderful that you were able to find some used copies. The stories that touch our hearts in childhood truly do become a part of the fiber of our soul. Treasures from the meadow. What a beautiful phrase!

Anonymous said...

Page thank you for provoking these cherished memories of mine...

After lunch Mrs. Welch looked down the lines of little desks from the front of the classroom. The alphabet, in both print and cursive, marched uniformly above the green blackboard behind her, as she asked us to pull out our workbooks for reading. “Lucy you may sit in the back”, she directed, as I pulled the big chapter book from my desk with a sense of great pride and excitement. I retreated to the secluded chair in the back corner of the room and laid the hardback book on my lap, searching for the bookmark in the midst of the many pages. I quickly lost myself in the adventures of the beautiful black horse and her friends Ginger, Merrylegs , Duchess and the others. I will never forget Black Beauty.
This is the experience that became the heart of my love for reading and animals. Anna Sewell wrote about a world of horses and their people in 1877 that transported an eight year old girl, in 1958, into a world so absorbing that the rest of the 3rd grade class went on without her and she didn’t even notice. That little girl was me... Lucy Allen

Page Lambert said...

Ah, yes, Black Beauty. Anna Sewell transported so many of us! Thank you for sharing your memories, Lucy.

Pat Jurgens said...

What a beautiful movie, and great message. Thanks, Page.
Pat

Dr. Dan Moore said...

A tremendous post Page. It was great the way you used Secretariat to remind us that we need to have our dreams in our heart and our heart in our dreams.

Connecting People with Nature, and Writers with Words said...

Dan, thanks so much for taking a moment to read the post, and send a reply. Glad you enjoyed it. Yes, he was an amazing horse - a metaphor for a great many things.
Page