Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley’s debut novel Barn Blind (1980) is an intimate look at a family in turmoil—Katy and Alex Karlson and their 4 teenage children operate Kate’s horse farm in the mid-west; they are caring for 40 thoroughbred horses on the 300 acre farm. There is plenty of work for all and Kate is a demanding boss, but money is scarce.
The Pony Clubbers, pre-teens and teenagers learning horsemanship, provide the needed low-cost labor to clean barns, exercise horses and tidy the tack room. They do their chores to learn, not earn, but sometimes Kate takes advantage of their adolescent love for horses.
The [Pony Clubber’s] father, who knew nothing of horses, came to Kate the next morning and made an offer for Spanky. [His daughter] was elated and ashamed. “This is him, daddy,” she said, shyly patting the neck that, by herself, she would have embraced. …
“Spanky is a lovely horse,” she said, “I trained him myself.” On the whole, Kate did not feel that she cheated these men. The horses she sold were worth but a few hundred dollars less that she charged.
The amount specified by Kate was considerably more than the amount that the Pony Clubber had given to her father, but he paid anyway—Kate is very convincing with parents. But John and Peter, Kate’s older boys, heard the exchange and took notice.
The income from equestrian classes and horse sales never covered costs and Alex worked full time in the city to make up the difference. The family’s money problems are made worse by Kate’s firm but false belief in her business acumen.
Kate’s full attention is always given to the children’s horsemanship; she demanded that they be mounted by 7:30 each day except Sunday to train for the three horse shows that loom over their summer lives. On Sunday the family goes to a small Catholic church near the farm.
Kate got religion late in life, after her children were born, but, once converted, religious ardor infused her life. Alex refused to convert, causing a split between the two:
It had turned out that Kate developed a passionate intolerance for the prospect of Axel’s exclusion from heavenly bliss. “You will go to Hell,” she said, “you will go to Hell.” And he laughed. …
He continued to tease her. Once he said, “You are truly the most puritanical Catholic I’ve ever seen. The Church forgives remember.
Kate couldn’t forgive; she moved to a separate bedroom, and there would be no further intimacies. Alex had tolerated that situation for 14 years because he loved her, but this summer his tolerance and love would be tested.
Emotions run deep in their teenage children who work hard and train hard. During one particularly frustrating family crisis, Kate lost her temper with the children and berated them for not working hard enough. Later, she and Alex are washing the dishes:
When the sink was full and steaming, he closed the taps and said, “Do you remember when Margaret was three and we sent her to nursery school, and they asked her what her name was, and she told them all it was ‘Sweetheart’?”
Kate ignores Margaret’s need for love and tenderness; Margaret becomes a weeper, subject to uncontrollable crying. Henry, the youngest, runs away from home during a horse show, but returns to watch John perform in the cross-country event (he took only a peanut butter sandwich for food). John, the 15 year old, has temper problems and punishes his horse. Peter struggles to meet Kate’s demands for excellence, hoping for affection in return.
A tenuous balance exists as the family copes with their inner devils and the hard physical labor of running Kate’s horse farm, training horses and holding equestrian classes in dressage.
The novel’s title barn blind is a derogatory term used by horse breeders that refers to an unreasoned and unshakable pride in their own horse–irregardless of the actual conformation of the horse. Some apply the term to the overzealous in general.
Kate is barn blind – She cannot see the consequences of her overzealous focus on the horse farm and dressage events. The will be tragic consequences for her family. Are you tired of reading about pushy, over-ambitious fathers? Read Barn Blind to get a good look at the pushy mother.
The author’s sensitive and insightful writing and her attention to detail make this story a delight to read. Along the way, the reader will get to know each member of this family well, but be prepared to learn the language of equestrian shows and horse farms.
The United States Equestrian Federation, USEF, trains, selects, and funds our United States Equestrian Team which consistently wins medals at the highest level of international competition, including the Olympic Games. The USEF also licenses equestrian competitions of all levels across the United States each year.
Day 61: Barn Blind, Jane Smiley (1980).