The Horse of the River: A Camp Canyon Falls Adventure
by Sari Cooper (Harbour Publishing $12.95

Review by Margot Fedoruk (BCBW 2020)

Twelve year-old Gillian has never been away from her family until she's sent to a month-long horse riding camp near Lytton.

Her mother tries to give her a pep talk as she's leaving. "Riding is where your heart is. Go. Commune with the horses and live in the woods."

On the car ride to the bus, Gillian's father tries to ease her fears with bad horse puns: "I hope you brought your jacket," he says, "I've heard it can get pretty colt up there when it’s time to hit the hay."

Gillian is so anxious that she's bombarded with warnings from the little voice in her head whom she has named 'Stella.' This is the set up for Sari Cooper's debut YA novel, The Horse of the River: A Camp Canyon Falls Adventure, about a young girl coming of age. Arriving at the camp, Gillian continues to struggle with doubts and fears. After a ghost story around the campfire, the next morning she wakes up in a state. "It hadn’t been the best night's sleep. She wasn't used to crickets all night, and the wind whistled as it passed through cracks in the cabin’s roof," writes Cooper. "The bunk beds also creaked whenever someone rolled over. And every time she drifted to sleep, images of a ghost horse galloped through her mind."

The Horse of the River covers plenty of subjects: homesickness, sibling and group dynamics, acquiring a natural style of horsemanship, and how to stay calm in a harrowing situation. The main protagonist, Gillian, learns how to make friends not only with difficult people but with a difficult paint horse nicknamed 'The Beast.' Cooper also allows her protagonist to discover that you can have a hobby you enjoy without feeling the need to be competitive; in this case Gillian's love of swimming, something that her 16-year-old sister excels at.

The riding games and activities are well researched and feel realistic. They include guiding reluctant horses in an obstacle course through a hanging sheet, kicking a tethered soccer ball, and maneuvering a horse into a wading pool. Learning the commands to communicate with a horse are skills that will prove useful for Gillian later in the story. In between a myriad of horse camp activities and rising tension with some of the girls, Cooper provides bits of humorous dialogue: "I heard he [the horse named General] ate a kid one year," said a girl from cabin one.

"Shut up! He did not...horses are vegetarians."

The Horse of the River highlights the best part of summer camp, such as ghost stories around a campfire, water fights, and trail rides. The 'no cellphone' rule creates an interesting element to the story when readers discover some old-fashioned handwritten letters. It is fun to eavesdrop on Gillian's correspondence with her older sister Alexis, who is busy training with her swim team in the city. Another nice touch is a two-page drawing of the terrain of Camp Canyon Falls along with a well-designed book cover, bearing an illustration of a dark horse with a flying mane.

The fictional camp is set in the remote interior, amidst the high rocky ridges and cold rushing rivers near Lytton, populated with bears and other potentially dangerous wildlife. Although touted as an adventure story, it is not until the final four chapters of The Horse of The River that the real action begins -- and it does deliver. Gillian must silence 'Stella -- the voice in her head -- to keep calm in order to survive a challenging situation.

The back jacket suggests it is written for the 9 to 12-year-old crowd, but a prank that involves stealing some of the girl's beloved stuffies toys would appeal to the younger end of the suggested audience. The book also contains opportunities to build up a stellar horse vocabulary, words including canter, trot, gait, and hackamore (a soft bitless bridle).

Physician and first-time author Sari Cooper had her two daughters in mind when she wrote The Horse of the River; they were 8 and 12 when she was writing it. When asked why it was important for her to have a strong female character as the protagonist, Cooper explains, "I wanted to portray these sorts of relationships and show the strength that girls and women can give to each other."

Cooper got her idea for the story after a family horseback riding and rafting trip in New Zealand. She also used her cherished childhood memories of summer camp in Ontario.

The Horse of the River fits in with the long list of horse stories that children just can't seem to get enough of. If you know a girl who loves horses and summer camp, this is a story that will appeal. And if your child gets hooked, there are more books to come, Cooper reveals: "The camp will face a risk in the future. There may be some changes to the surrounding landscape that threaten the environment and spook the horses, putting the kids at risk."

If Sari Cooper had the goal of writing a book filled with a cast of strong positive female characters, she has succeeded. 9781550178777

Margot Fedoruk's writing includes personal essays in the Globe and Mail, Portal 2019, and Island Parent magazine. She has a BA from the University of Winnipeg and is currently pursuing a creative writing degree at Vancouver Island University.