In this last book of the series, I hoped to see improvement in Winnie’s attitudes and relationships with her family. Mackall kept me hanging until almost the end of the book.
First, there’s not much of a horse story here. This book has the least about horses of any book in the series. A school friend, Kaylee Hsu, doesn’t have her own horse, but over several summers has ridden Buckskin Bandit at the Happy Trails riding stable. When she visits the stable that spring, Bandit is not the friendly horse she’d known in the past. Kaylee contacts Winnie for help.
I could make out tiny scars on his rump and sides. It didn’t take much imagination to picture the whip and spurs that had made those marks.
“Kaylee,” I said, gripping the stall door so hard I felt splinters under my fingernails, “this horse has been abused.” p. 9
It was never clear why the man running Happy Trails would abuse a horse that the stable’s income relied upon. That didn’t make sense to me. The horse is also described as being thin and fearful. From a horse-lover's perspective, it seems like abuse, but quite honestly, I doubt that Bandit’s condition would be enough to convince a humane society he was being abused.
The theme of the book is taken from Romans 12:15. Mackall quotes it from the NLT translation.
When others are happy, be happy with them. If they are sad, share their sorrow.
The Scriptural theme came through pretty strongly in this book. Winnie has a hard time sharing in the joy of others, repeatedly thinking that life wasn’t "fair.”
The girls later discover Bandit hidden in a back pasture at Happy Trails. They use a natural training technique known as Join-Up to gain his trust. This typically requires a relatively small, contained area, but they’re able to accomplish it in the field. That's possible I suppose, considering the horse had been gentle in the past. (See a demonstration of Join-Up in the video below. Note the small pen and tall walls.)
Lizzie’s birthday is on March 23 and Winnie’s the following day. For one day each year, the girls are the same age. Hawk plans a birthday party for Winnie, but Winnie isn’t happy about it. Her birthday reminds her of her mother’s death. The horse she and her mother had been going to look at when the accident occurred was to be a birthday gift for Winnie.
When Winnie receives a school assignment to invent something, she finally has the full attention of her father, who is excited to help her. They work on an invention called the Magnificent Multishower with twelve shower heads placed around the shower stall. Winnie enjoys her father’s attention, but Mr. Willis becomes obsessed with the project, making Winnie work late nights and early mornings with him.
Winnie’s invention doesn’t win the school competition, but surprisingly her sister’s does. Mr. Willis shifts his attention to Lizzy, ignoring Winnie. The state competition is the day after the school one—the same day as Winnie’s birthday. Mr. Willis chooses to attend the event with Lizzy and cancels Winnie’s birthday party. Is any “normal” person really that bad of a parent?
While Lizzy and Mr. Willis are at the state competition, Winnie finds a surprising ally in her quest to rescue Bandit—her father’s “friend” Madeline. Winnie has resented Madeline up till now. When Winnie tells her about the horse being abused, Madeline reveals that her son Mason’s condition was due to abuse by his father (her then-husband).
“I ran into the nursery. And there was Mason, lying on the floor next to the wall. He wasn’t moving.” p. 164
“Mason’s father had thrown his son against the wall to make him stop crying.” p. 165
Obviously, this kind of horrible abuse does occur in real life, but that’s a pretty heavy topic for the intended age range for this series. :(
Madeline didn’t have a photographic memory, but she didn’t need one. That picture of Mason was burned into her mind as deeply as the picture of Mom’s accident was carved into mine. p. 167
Madeline, Winnie, and Kaylee are joined at the Happy Trails stable by the police and the humane society.
When they return home from the police station, Winnie is surprised. All her friends are there to celebrate her birthday. Her dad had finally come to his senses and realized he shouldn’t have canceled the party. :)
It seems Winnie and her dad are possibly on a good path now—as well as Winnie and Madeline. It wasn’t a totally satisfying conclusion. It almost seems as if there was supposed to be at least one more book for full closure. I was hoping for more of a "happily-ever-after" ending, but it is only a book after all, and the characters aren’t real. :)
On another note, Winnie's photographic memory is mentioned in each book in the series. I was curious about that and did some internet sleuthing. It's believed that photographic or eidetic memory doesn't really exist—at least not the ability to retain long-term, fully-detailed images. Apparently, the bold images typically fade within minutes. People who do have better-than-normal visual memories are almost always children, up to the age of twelve. It seems young children have more of a need for the visual. As language skills develop more fully, this visual photography diminishes and is eventually replaced by language.
Mackall referred to this natural training technique when the girls were trying to get Bandit to trust them.
Although trainer Monty Roberts didn’t invent the “Join-Up” technique, he did trademark the phrase. Other natural horse trainers, present and past, have used similar methods. Monty Roberts has a controversial background, most likely exaggerating events from his past in order to sell books—including abuse by his father and his father’s alleged cruel horse-training methods.
But without a doubt, he is an amazing horse trainer. This video demonstrates “Join Up.” Skip to about the four-minute mark to go straight to the section where Roberts actually starts working the horse.