Book Talk: Coal Black Horse by Robert Olmstead

Hands down one of the most unexpectedly great books I’ve read in a very long time. I knew nothing about it going in and really only have good things to say at the end.

I’ll be the first to admit that I read this thinking it was about a horse because I love horses. It’s juvenile and possibly sad and/or weird but I do. It makes me nostalgic for when I was young and spent days riding trails with my sister. So, imagine my surprise when this book turned out not really to be about a horse at all…

This is a twisted take on an adventure story – young Robey, 14, is sent to find and bring home his father, who is fighting in the Civil War. He comes across a coal black horse (interestingly, never named) who serves as guide along his journey. The writing is very straightforward (possibly bland to some  – but they’re just too lazy to give it a real chance), but it’s also very poetic. The descriptions are calculated yet visceral.

 Spoiler alert.

Robey’s relationships feel real. His relationship with the horse doesn’t get too warm-fuzzy. His mom is constantly in his head, guiding him in her absence. And, most effectively, his and Rachel’s storyline unfolds in the most tragically beautiful way, two broken souls find each other in a land of death. It’s an innocent young love that somehow avoids becoming hokey.

The real strength behind this novel, though, is how freaking wonderful Robey is as a character. He’s so dry and honest and loving and determined and thoughtful – but so not perfect. He witnesses Rachel’s rape and does nothing. He steals. He learns to kill without regret or guilt. But at his core, he’s a gentle boy who is forced to learn how to navigate the wasteland in which he finds himself – and he somehow knows in his heart he will survive.

Upon returning to his home, Robey has a conversation with his mother about Rachel’s unexpected and unwanted pregnancy. It totally sums up the kind of kid-turned-man he is, and why he is so damn lovable:

‘Do you know she is going to have a baby?’
‘No,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘I didn’t know that.’
‘Is it yours?’
‘If she wants it to be.’

I damn near cried.

Book: Coal Black Horse
Author: Robert Olmstead

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