This book is amazing! I’m incredibly subjective about this book because I love horses, so I can’t say that I’ve ever read a bad horse story. However, The Eighty-Dollar Champion is so much more than a horse story – it’s about America in the Cold War era, and it’s about how perseverance and hard work leads to success. Letts was able to bring this little piece of history back to life so that we could all relive the triumphs and failures of Henry de Leyer and Snowman and appreciate their impact on the United States at that time.
On one fateful day in 1956, Harry de Leyer – a riding instructor for Miss Knox’s School for Girls in Long Island, New York – arrived at a horse auction late and bought a shabby plow horse that was headed to the slaughterhouse for $80. Snowman was a calm and patient horse who wasn’t easily spooked, which was great for the girls who were just beginning to ride. But Harry, a recent Dutch immigrant with a growing family, needed thoroughbreds that can be trained and sold as show horses, so he reluctantly sold Snowman to a neighboring farm. Much to Harry’s surprise, Snowman kept escaping back to the de Leyer farm, even with an old tire weighing him down and multiple high fences in his path. When Harry finally decided to train Snowman in show jumping, this pair of underdogs slowly but surely climbed to the top to become an equestrian legend.
This is my first non-fiction horse book, so I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked Letts’ writing style even though it didn’t make me feel like I was a part of the story. It was as though I was watching a movie – Letts would hint at how Harry and Snowman may have felt, but she usually sticks to describing the actions (or the lack of actions) and let the readers interpret for themselves. So much detail and thought went into describing the scene and the sounds that I could almost hear the crowd at the National Horse Show or see Harry’s expression when Snowman first returned to his farm.
Aside from the main story of Harry and Snowman, parts of history were concurrently detailed to explain how Harry got to where he was and the state of America during that time period. I haven’t picked up a history book since high school, but I enjoyed these info-packed sections about the history of horses and the impact of industrialization on the value of horses because, really, anything related to horses piques my interest! The mini history lessons also complemented the main story well because it gave me a better understanding of some of the choices Harry and others made.
I was also really taken by the end of the book where Letts introduced the current Harry de Leyer (now a “galloping grandfather”!), but was a bit thrown off by one statement on how he and his first wife had divorced somewhere after that happy Snowman story. It made me realize how tough those times were, and how much of the story we don’t really get to see.
And finally, the photos! PERFECTION.
The Eighty-Dollar Champion has a wonderful message about never giving up that stems from the efforts of one man and his horse (or one horse and his man). This captivating book played like a movie in my head, and I thoroughly enjoyed the history lessons and the photos.