Blind Your Ponies by Stanley G. West
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
My take: This one was a sleeper. Never saw it coming.
I was surprised this book was about a small town basketball team. Only it's really not. That's only the cover story. It's kind of like Hoosiers. Only it's not. It's really about heartbreak and heartache, pride and redemption, regret, humor, and most of all relationships and hope.
The characters and the town are completely believable and realistic. If you don't believe there's a school small enough to barely scare up a basketball team, you've never been to Enterprise, Utah or Hilldale, Wyoming. Please, just trust me. Oh, yes they do occasionally ride their horse to school or church. They also wear those leather string ties and leather vests with their colored Wranglers for church, regular denim for other days. Cowboy boots are a staple. Although fashion is not foremost in this book. I'm just clarifying.
The book takes place in Willow Creek, Montana in 1990. The town is barely going and the school sports organization is tired and nearly out of steam. The school boasts all of 18 students and Sam, one of the protagonists chooses to coach the basketball team for one more year if he can find 5 students to play. Here's what he comes up with:
Rob: All American small town boy. He's a senior and has played every year. He plays well. He's peripheral to the story.
Tom: Just wants to rodeo. He plays a good game but he's tired of getting beat down; not only on the basketball court but at home. His dad is a cruel alcoholic who berates the boy constantly. He forbids Tom from playing basketball and reminds him on a daily basis what a loser he is.
Curtis: Plays guard, shy, not a great player.
Dean: Mostly he is a place holder. Not bright, by any stretch. Little spoiler - struggles to stay eligible due to his grades. But he's fast on his feet.
Pete: Parents are divorcing in Minnesota so he gets shipped off to his grandmother's house in Willow Creek. This significantly shifts the balance of basketball power. Pines for his girlfriend, Kathy in Minnesota.
Olaf: Surprise! Foreign Exchange student from Sweden. He's 6'11". Never played basketball.
Did I mention the team hasn't won a game in 5 years? How very discouraging.
They win. They lose. They play ball. But that's not all. Each of the characters in the book carries a painful past. As they glom onto the team's hope for success, They become a part of something bigger and better than they are. Discovering that the whole is much bigger than the sum of its parts. The story twists and turns in subtle ways, wending its way through each home, finding the secret so painfully locked in each of the closets.
I could go on and on about the book and the characters because the characters are so individualized and realistic. Along with the team, there is Sam, the coach, Diana, a teacher and assistant coach (love interest for Sam), Andrew Wainwright, Mervin Payne (another spoiler: Author used Mervin to illustrate choosing pride over love and then allows the reader into the moment when he understand what he did. Very powerful), Hazel, Amos, etc. Each of the residents bring something interesting, sad, triumphant to the story and I'd love to pontificate about them all. Instead I will just mention Pete's grandma, my favorite character.
The author provides Grandma with a completely unique persona, weaving her mischief throughout the book. The book starts out with Pete arriving at Willow Creek, greeted by his one handed grandma. Grandma takes him to her house where she introduces him to Tripod, the three legged cat and Parrot, the parrot who swears like a sailor. Grandma and Pete enjoy a wonderful relationship that includes humor and honesty. In fact, the interactions between Grandma and grandson left me laughing out loud most of the time and occasionally my heart ached. Eventually, Grandma, showing her grit, admits to Pete how she lost her hand. We also learn when and why she wears a fedora.
As the reader gets to know the characters throughout the book, the reader also begins to understand them and maybe even recognizes pieces of themselves within the pages. All of the residents in the town share commonalities; a past regret and deep sadness. They also share hope. Those who choose to, join in the excitement of the sport. There is camaraderie, hope and wholeness.