“Once there was a dark stormy night in spring, when deep down in their holes, the wombats knew not to come out, when the possums stayed quiet in their hollow limbs, when the great black flying phalangers that live in the mountain forests never stirred. On this night, Bel Bel, the cream brumby mare, gave birth to a colt foal, pale like herself, or paler, in that wild, black storm.”
So begins the tale of Thowra, a beautiful stallion who roams Australia’s Snowy Mountain ranges and the title protagonist of The Silver Brumby.
First published in 1958, the story of Thowra extended to a 12-book series following the lives of a herd of brumbies – the wild descendants of escaped or lost horses from Australia’s early European settlers. It is a powerful classic that avoids patronising simplifications of vocabulary or narrative for young readers and the story offers a lot more to young readers than purely the wild horse adventures I took in as an eight-year-old.
For a start, Elyne Mitchell’s writing evokes not only the romance, mystery and harsh natural beauty of the Australian bush, but also the physicality of life for the wild horses who roam the peaks and ravines of this region.
Every page is filled with details that conjure up a sense of place – there are snowgum and candlebark trees,
dingos and wombats, as well as kurrawongs and cattle dogs to inspire young imaginations
In the first of the series, Thowra is growing up at his mother’s side. It is a story of friendship and loyalty, as Thowra befriends another colt, Storm, and an escaped filly, Golden, and does daily battle with the bullying Arrow. It is a story of relationships, jealousy, loyalty, sticking by those who are your most important people and the difficult process of developing a sense of self.
It is also a story of colour and the challenges of being different: Thowra is a creamy white, which makes him both stand out from the herd and a target for men to hunt… Perhaps that is why, beyond Elyne’s evocative prose, the brumbies’ adventures can give children some insight into their own experience – first as an animal with natural flight or fight instincts, and secondly as a human who can make a choice about their response. The issues dealt with are all appropriate territory for this age group: the forming of friendships, responding to bullying, loss and the process of grieving, and about why, sometimes, the best course of action is to forge your own path in life, independent of what your friends think or do.
While there is a degree of anthropomorphic dialogue running between the stallions, mares, colts, fillies and foals at the heart of these adventures, it is no mere reflection of human experience lived beneath the ragged coat of a brumby. After all, there are fences and ropes, gates and enclosures – neutral objects to a human eye, but the difference between freedom and slavery for a brumby. In this way, The Silver Brumby can also inspire children to see things from another’s perspective and develop a sense of empathy for the experience of all living things.
Of course, best of all, The Silver Brumby is a riveting read, action packed and full of page-turning twists… And of course, after your child has read the first, there are another 11 books rearing to leap off the shelf!
Author Notes Elyne Mitchell is an Australian author who started writing The Silver Brumby series for the eldest of her four children. Mitchell’s interest in horses began when she was a young girl, and was inspired by her father, who taught her to ride. The Silver Brumby, first published in 1958, heralded the beginning of the internationally famous series. In 1988, she was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for her services to literature, and in 1993, an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Charles Sturt University. She died in 2002.