Friday, June 26, 2015

The Princess and the Foal by Stacy Gregg, 2014

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Princess Haya loves her family more than anything--especially her mother who brings light and happiness into King Hussein's house. So when Queen Alia is killed in a tragic accident, Princess Haya is devastated. Knowing how unhappy she is and how much she loves horses, Haya’s father, King Hussein, gives her a special present: a foal of her very own. And this foal changes Princess Haya’s world completely.
Set in an exotic locale where royalty is real, this story of a determined modern-day princess is both beautiful and awe-inspiring. Perfect for fans of Black Beauty, Misty of Chincoteague and anyone who wonders what it's like to be a real princess.
(272 pages)

I picked this up at the library because its cover and title reminded me of The Princess and the Unicorn by Carol Hughes, which charmed me as a little girl devouring books about fairies and unicorns. I'm very glad I didn't read The Princess and the Foal when I was actually reading The Princess and the Unicorn, because I just know I would have been hugely disappointed by it; far from being a magical book about a fancy princess and her foal (who, you know, I kind of assumed would be able to at least talk or something), it's actually a book about a girl struggling to find her place in the world after the death of her mother. It was nothing like what I was looking for, but it was a beautiful story and I'm very glad I read it.

Haya's mother died when she was three. The book begins right before her mother's sudden death (via airplane accident) and goes until she is twelve. Haya (in both real life and the book) is an amazing equestrienne, and it was very interesting to watch her develop those skills throughout her childhood, beginning with rambling rides around the horse yard atop horses who didn't care if a toddler sat on them while they wandered around, and training until she was good enough to lead her father's stable in the King's Cup (which is a huge horse competition, apparently). You get to watch Haya and, to a certain extent, her brother Ali grow up, you get to watch her relationship with the people around her change as she assumes more responsibility as a princess, you get to watch her get into all sorts of typical little-girl mischief. My favorite example of this is when she stuck her brother in the dumbwaiter going from her room to the kitchen, because she didn't want to try it out with her favorite doll. As a big sister, I can relate with the appeal of using siblings as guinea pigs.

The biggest disappointment with this book came from looking the real facts up on Wikipedia. The real Princess Haya is still an amazing horse-woman who accomplished everything she did in the book, and her mother really did die in a lightning storm when Haya was three, but there are just some peripheral details that were left out whose discovery changes the way I look at the events in the book. For example, Haya and Ali's mother was the third out of four wives King Hussein had throughout his life (two of which he was divorced from, and the last of which he married a mere year after the death of Haya's mother). What's more, Haya had far more than just one younger brother (Ali) and one older brother (a shadowy figure mentioned only once as an explanation of why Ali would not become king): her own mother had also adopted another daughter shortly before her death, and King Hussein had nine other children between his other wives. Three of these were born during the time period covered in the book, and none of them were so much as hinted at. I can understand why Gregg chose to skate past all of these facts in order to streamline the story into a shorter, more intimate tale of family and healing from loss. However, Gregg goes a step farther than just ignoring the facts - she actually clips and twists them to fit her own picture. In the epilogue, she describes the way Haya married the shiekh of Dubai and had two children with him; what she completely neglects to mention is that this skeikh has quite a few wives, Haya is only a "junior wife," and her two children are 1/12 of the 24 kids he has fathered between his different wives.

A little less of a romantic ending, isn't it? I mean, I can see why Gregg would clip the polygamy from her epilogue if a bunch of younger kids are going to be reading it. I would almost have preferred that she left the marriage bit out of the epilogue altogether, though, because the way it is feels kind of like lying. Then again, I think I'm digging a bit too deeply into this - everyone knows that "based on a true story" means nothing more than "I'm going to steal the names and the setting and make up my own story." Gregg definitely did far more than that with The Princess and the Foal - instead of clipping pieces she liked from the true story and making up the rest, she started with the whole story and clipped away what she didn't like. And I really can't complain too much about what she threw away, because what was left was a story about family, grief, and horses strong enough that even my aversion to horse-back riding didn't keep me from enjoying it.

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