Ghost Horse by Thomas H. McNeely
Paperback, 260 pages
Published September 22nd by Gival Press
Buy Now: Kobo — Amazon
Note: As a tour host selected by TLC virtual book tours, I received a complimentary copy from the publishers in exchange for an honest review. The opinions expressed here are completely honest and completely my own. Please also note that any quotations used here are from an advanced, uncorrected review copy.
It’s Houston, Texas, and it’s the 1970s. Buddy Turner is eleven years old and likes to make animated movies with his best friend, Alex Torres. Buddy’s parents don’t live together any more. Two years ago his father moved to Fort Polk, Louisiana to finish med school and serve the Army. But now his dad has moved back to Houston, and he still doesn’t live with them. He is Buddy’s dad, but he’s not the same. Sometimes when Buddy looks at him, he sees his father. But other times, he see someone else.
Buddy’s mom works hard to provide for him. She provides for her mother, Grandma Liddy, too. But his dad’s mother, Grandma Turner, doesn’t like his mother. She’s always saying things about her, about how he should come and live with his Grandma instead. His dad wants Buddy to live with him and the woman. He can’t tell his mother, though.
Grandma Turner decided he should go to St. Edward’s school instead of Queen of Peace. So, he does. St. Edward’s is an all white Catholic school. Alex was Buddy’s best friend, and he did like making the movies, but now they seem childish. They’re not like real life. Now he doesn’t want his classmates to know that he’s friends with a Mexican. Buddy also doesn’t want them to know that his father doesn’t live with him.
Ghost Horse tells a story that will stay with you. A story of racism, and class tension. A story of broken families and lost innocence. McNeely takes you back in time to when you were eleven. As you read, you see everything as Buddy sees it, and understand it (or don’t understand it) as Buddy does. You see the edges of dark, adult truths through the unknowing, innocent eyes of a child. Over time, however, Buddy starts to pick things up. Not everything, but enough to know when something’s wrong.
You’re immediately drawn in to the story as you try to decipher the complexities of Buddy’s family through his naiveté. You’re alongside Buddy as he tries to make sense of his volatile family situation, but as a child, there’s only so much he can grasp; he knows both more and less than adults give him credit for. You feel his angst, his unease, through his half-formed opinions and almost-understandings.
McNeely uses the idea of film as a trope, weaving it throughout the story. Buddy sees life as a movie: there’s the “childish” and the “fake” versus the “adult” and the “real”:
“He knows that his father is lying. But it is like an alphabet with letters missing, a building that bursts into impossible shapes. He watches his father speak as if he is watching a bad lip sync. He is in a no place, a place where there is no horse; he is in the real movie, he thinks.”
Soon, however, Buddy realizes that such distinctions are arbitrary, and that even the adult world isn’t “real.” It’s his, what can only be described as “frenemy,” Simon, who introduces him to such a paradox:
“This is the real secret Simon taught him: that school is real, and a joke; that only losers don’t follow the rules, and only losers believe in them.”
As Buddy tries to stay true to both his parents, he begins to lose himself. With such contradictory role models, it’s hard to know who to become. Ghost Horse is a coming of age story in the sense that Buddy loses his innocence. However, you don’t see him fully grow up. You do, however, get a devastating picture of the effect that racism, classicism, and a broken family can have on a child.
The characters are complex and well drawn. They remain mysterious to us as we can only see them as Buddy sees them, and thus their complexities are often overlooked. They, however, remain intriguing and compelling. The plot is similar in that way. While Buddy’s view of what’s going on is simplified, it is, at the same time, also magnified. The edges of the events themselves are blurred, but to Buddy, they are everything.
Buddy’s trajectory is almost immediately uncomfortable for the reader, but you can’t look away. You need to follow Buddy through the ups and downs, through his keenly observed remarks and insights. As his loyalties are pulled and pushed between his parents, you just want to hug him and tell him everything will be okay. But, you don’t know if that’s true. You know there is no easy answer, no quick fix.
A dark, beautiful, heartbreaking story, I found myself wanting to both quote everything and turn away in unease. McNeely weaves a tale you won’t soon forget.
Recommendation: If you found yourself liking the kind of books you received as assignments in school (like me), you should definitely pick this one up. I would dub it literary fiction, so if you enjoy that genre, give this one a go. If you’re interested in lighter, more commercial fiction, I’d suggest taking another direction.
About the Author
A native of Houston, Texas, Thomas H. McNeely has received fellowships from the Wallace Stegner Program at Stanford University, the Dobie Paisano Program at the University of Texas at Austin, and the National Endowment for the Arts, as well from the MacDowell Colony, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, and the Vermont Studio Center. His fiction has appeared in The Atlantic, Ploughshares, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and Epoch, and has been anthologized in Algonquin Books’ Best of the South and What If?: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers. His non-fiction has appeared in Ninth Letter and The Rumpus. Ghost Horse, winner of the 2013 Gival Press Novel Award, is his first book. He teaches in the Emerson College Honors Program and the Stanford Online Writing Studio, and lives with his wife and daughter in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Find out more about Thomas at his website.