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Swimming with Horses

by Oakland Ross

For 15-year-old Sam Mitchell of the fictional Toronto suburb Kelso, the summer of 1963 is life-changing. That season marks the mysterious arrival of 18-year-old Hilary Anson, a transplant from South Africa who comes to stay with a relative. The nature of Hilary’s Canadian exile is unclear, though there are whispers of scandal surrounding her appearance in Kelso. Sam and Hilary are both avid equestrians, and they spend the summer riding out to the old quarry pond where Sam, utterly captivated by Hilary’s beauty and rebellious nature, watches her coax her horse to hurl himself – against his nature and with Hilary astride – into the cool, glassy water.

The action of this engrossing novel switches frenetically back and forth between Kelso and South Africa; in the latter sections, we learn of Hilary’s sexual abuse at the hands of Jack Tanner, her father’s arrogant, racist stable hand. Hilary is also spending rather too much time (at least for observers in Apartheid-era South Africa) with Muletsi Dadla, a young Black junior stable hand and possible spy. Hilary’s father is not only an accomplished businessman, he is also the minister of state security; is Muletsi just a labourer or is he using Hilary to learn government secrets?

After a physical altercation with Tanner, Muletsi is imprisoned but later escapes. Tanner is bent on revenge, while Hilary is committed to getting herself and Muletsi to Basutoland, a small British protectorate where they might evade the certainty of prison or death. (Hilary carries a gun given to her by Nelson Mandela.) Meanwhile, in Kelso, Sam and Hilary discover a group of large cannons on the undeveloped lands owned by businessman Quinton Vasco, whose dead body appears at the novel’s opening. The very next day, Hilary disappears, leaving Sam heartbroken.

As a narrator, Sam is engaging because he’s honest about his shortcomings. He is not a great equestrian and is an overly cautious person in general. Moreover, he fails to act when Hilary is abused by local palooka Bruce Gruber, with whom she hooks up much to Sam’s chagrin. The novel benefits from the frequent changes in setting and time frame, which are deployed in short bursts to keep the reader’s adrenaline pumping. One minute, we are down by the Kelso quarry hoping in vain that Sam and Hilary will avoid a confrontation with Gruber and his belligerent cronies; the next, Muletsi and Hilary are tearing across South Africa in the freezing cold, desperately trying to reach Basutoland with Tanner in pursuit.

Author Oakland Ross provides an intriguing conclusion set many years after the novel’s main action. Sam, now in his 40s and an assistant professor of English at Syracuse University, takes a sabbatical year to research a book in post-Apartheid South Africa, where he also hopes to discover what became of Hilary. He finds the answer, leaving both character and reader satisfied.