Thursday, November 20, 2008

Running Free: Paint the Wind by Pam Munoz Ryan

Newbery winner Pam Munoz Ryan (for Esperanza Rising) returns to the American West, this time the high plains, in her latest novel, Paint The Wind.

"The only way to capture a ghost is to paint the tail of the wind." Maya's violet eyes widened, her voice breathless with conviction.

With one hand, she picked up the small brown and white plastic horse and moved it in swift arcs over the chenille bedspread. The June sun eased a notch lower in the southern California sky and flooded through the west windows of the two-story house where she had lived with Grandmother. Maya made the figure prance through the shimmering air and whispered, " I am a mysterious phantom, belonging to the stars. Who will find me?"

With the other hand she chose a black stallion and swept it upward after the ghost horse. She raced the black horse forward and said, "I am riding the wind. I am coming for you."

As the novel begins with echoes of The Secret Garden, orphaned Maya lives a shuttered life with her coldly controlling and neurotically protective paternal grandmother. Forbidden to speak of her mother, whom Grandmother holds responsible for the accident which killed both her parents, Maya has only a few fleeting mental images, one photograph of her laughing mother, waving at someone from horseback, and a shoebox of her mom's toy horses, to keep her memories of her alive, and these Maya keeps hidden away from her Grandmother's sight.

But when her grandmother suddenly dies, Maya learns that she indeed does have another family, a family which Grandmother Menetti despised as "living like animals," a grandfather Walter, great uncle Frederick, and great aunt Violet Limner, who live and work a ranch seemingly in another world. In two days Maya finds herself sleeping in her mother's old bed in her room in the fascinating old ranch house filled with photos of her mother, even a duplicate of the one Maya has secretly held dear. Maya learns that she was the one her mother was waving to in her photo, and begins to feel that she has come out of a long captivity to her real home.

But too soon Maya is whisked away to the summer camp on the Sweetwater River where her Aunt Vi is doing summer research, a camp where she soon learns that she will be doing chores, riding horses, and dealing with her difficult younger cousin Payton for the season. At first lonely and fearful, Maya soon discovers that she has the Limner knack for handling horses and when her riding skills are strong enough, Aunt Vi takes her on a long ride to see the wild horses. In a small herd there, Maya sees the brown and white mare Artemesia, the once-wild mustang that her mother trained and rode before her death and who has escaped to join the stallion Sargent's harem herd.

When the government rounds up Artemesia's group in a scheduled "gather" of the wild mustangs, the mare and her foal escape, and on a day when Aunt Vi is away from camp, Maya decides to tack up and look for Artemesia and her baby on her own. When a sudden earthquake causes an avalanche which blocks the course of the Sweetwater, Maya's saddle horse flees and Maya finds herself with serious injuries, feverish and unable to walk, with no one knowing her whereabouts. Her only hope of quick rescue is to coax Artemesia to allow her to ride her across the river and back into camp.

In alternating chapters, Ryan weaves, as she says "like a braided rein," the story of Artemesia, the "ghost" horse, and the story of Maya into a gripping but poetic story of love lost and found. With the high desert's beautiful mountain ranges as a backdrop, Paint The Wind is a modern story which has the feel of old-fashioned horse classics like Misty of Chincoteague or King of the Wind: The Story of the Godolphin Arabian which will appeal to today's readers and perhaps draw them back to those shimmering, satisfying novels of C. W. Anderson, Marguerite Henry, or Walter Farley.

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