Author: Carolyn Judson Burnett
Publisher: A.L. Burt Company
ISBN: none (click on the picture to find it on Amazon)
Length: 252 pages
Quote: “Shirley Willing, with flaming eyes and tightly clenched hands, jumped quickly forward, and with her right hand seized the bridle of a horse that was bearing a strange boy along the road, which ran near the river.”
Whoever Carolyn Judson Burnett was (this book belongs to one of the pseudonymous series for which the A.L. Burt Company was known), she (or he) understood the general idea of building suspense. Is this moral tale for little girls really going to open with its heroine stealing a horse? The answer is...yes. Shirley might have been content to send the boy into town to warn the people that the dam has broken, but when he balks she drags him out of the saddle and rides his horse into town. Then, reunited with the friends she’s visiting (it’s not even her town), she proceeds to faint. The horse will, of course, eventually be restored to its own humans.
This is only an introduction to Shirley and the real plot of the story, which begins after Shirley’s friend Mabel goes back with her to spend the second half of spring break in Kentucky.
The Blue Grass Seminary Girls represent the first wave of twentieth-century American feminism. Created to appeal to girls who liked boys’ adventure stories, most of them are generally packing pistols, which they’re willing and able to aim at Bad Men’s heads. They can also steal a horse, or a boat, whenever the plot requires it. Around the middle of the book, while dressing like a boy, Shirley gets drafted into a gang war with rough boys who throw rocks at one another’s heads. Shirley and Mabel always rise to these tests of their mettle. Then, after the crisis, they prove their femininity by crying, fainting, or both.
Nevertheless, we’re informed on page 21 that Shirley is “a typical product” of Kentucky. A motherless daughter, she provides the moral support to keep her doting father from drinking and gambling...much. Her favorite pet is a Thoroughbred stallion called Gabriel. Only Shirley and Jimmy, the orphaned stable boy who just might be an unacknowledged brother of hers, dare to enter Gabriel’s stall. The big horse can be depended on to kick and trample any man who comes near him, which is why the villainous Mr. Jones, Mr. Willing’s horse-racing rival, can’t poison Gabriel himself but tries to get Jimmy to do it. Shirley, who can borrow Jimmy’s whole identity as easily as his clothes, gets into a variety of scrapes (including the aforementioned gang war) trying to save Jimmy from temptation. We’re told that she also does well in school, though we don’t see it in this book.
The scene that will probably seem most unlikely to most readers just could have happened. Most aggressive animals aren’t really vicious; they attack only when they feel threatened. When Mr. Jones backs horse-phobic Mabel into Gabriel’s stall, we’re told, the horse takes pity on Mabel and allows her to turn him loose, so that he can give Jones the broken ribs Jones deserves. Some horses are like that. Not many, but some.
The part I find hardest to swallow may be true to the setting too. “When is any of these people going to report this Jones to the police?” I wondered as I read. They never will. It's considered a disgrace, Burnett explains, for Kentuckians to enlist help to defend themselves. Jones, being already a liar, bully, coward, traitor, and thief, is not ashamed to whine to the police when someone gives him a well-earned punch in the nose, but the Willings have reputations to maintain. Jones is Mr. Willing’s enemy, but since the Willing estate belongs in some sense to Shirley and Gabriel too, Mr. Willing is less ashamed to let a fifteen-year-old and a horse defend him against another man than to enlist men for protection. Well, if they say so, I guess...I used to doubt old-timers’ stories of what barbarian “guerrillas” Kentuckians used to be, but I’ve not read anything about this book having been denounced as slander.
This novel is recommended to all kitsch collectors, and to horse-loving, adventure-loving girls who have a solid grip on reality. Shirley may be hard to believe, but at least she doesn’t spend her days moping around in unrequited love. There is a time in a girl’s life when Shirley’s levelheaded, sisterly attitude toward boys may make up for all the other defects of the story. If you buy books for a girl of that age, you may want to collect the whole series--there were four of them.
Although they're not Fair Trade Books, the best price I can offer on any of the "Blue Grass Girls" books is $10 per book + $5 per package (+ $1 per online payment). You could probably get all four books into one package for a total of $45. Alternatively, you could fit three or more vintage books by living writers into one package along with this one; most books sold here cost only $5 per copy, and living writers receive $1 for each copy of a secondhand book this site sells.