I’m trucking along with the next book in the Pony Jumpers series, TRIPLE BAR, and it’s proving to be a fascinating book to write. I’ve always had a soft spot for the misunderstood characters in stories, and this book is a further step along the redemption arc that I’ve been playing out for the protagonist, Susannah Andrews, since her debut in Dare to Dream. In that book, she was far from the most likeable character. In fact, she was pretty much an out-and-out villain. I hit every cliche under the sun for her – spoiled, wealthy, vile, a hard, unsportsmanlike rider. Everything you would expect from a stereotypical pony book villain, and the absolute opposite of Marley, our heroine in that story.
Susannah’s introduction arrived early – in Chapter 1 of Dare to Dream as the Carmichael family sat around their kitchen table and discussed the upcoming show season:
“Did you hear that the Andrews family have bought Buckingham?”
Marley rolled her eyes. “So that precious darling Susannah can win Pony of the Year,” she grumbled. “As if she deserves to even come close.”
“She might now though,” Van said. “That pony’s a machine. Never seen it put a foot wrong in its life.”
“Poor pony,” Marley sighed. “Imagine belonging to that family.”
“Competitive?” Mike asked, not knowing them.
“Beyond the realm,” Kris said. “I wouldn’t want to be one of their ponies.”
“Or one of their kids,” Van agreed. “I like to win as much as anyone else, but I couldn’t stand it if I got yelled at every time I failed to meet up to someone else’s expectations.”
And when Susannah herself stepped into the story, she was utterly vile:
Marley looked up to see Susannah Andrews approaching them, and stifled a groan. At barely thirteen years old, Susannah was younger than most of the other Pony Grand Prix riders, but her parents had spared no expense buying her the best ponies on the circuit. Their belief that their daughter was the best thing since sliced bread had built up Susannah’s dangerously high self-esteem. Good sportsmanship was not part of the family’s vocabulary, as far as Marley could tell, and she pitied the girl’s ponies, who shouldered all of the blame for any mistakes that Susannah made.
She stopped near Marley to talk to a friend, her voice pitched to carry, and Marley’s couldn’t help overhearing Susannah mentioning her name.
“I couldn’t believe it when I heard,” Susannah was saying. “I mean, who puts a pony into a paddock with a barbed wire fence? That’s just stupid.”
Marley got to her feet and stepped up behind Susannah. “Say that to my face.”
Susannah turned around and met Marley’s eyes, her face impassive. “I said, I can’t believe anyone would be stupid enough to put their pony behind barbed wire, then to expect sympathy when he mangles himself getting caught up in it.”
So there we have a character that absolutely nobody is going to be rooting for. But there is a common denominator going on in both of these scenes, both placed there very deliberately.
“I couldn’t stand it if I got yelled at every time I failed to meet up to someone else’s expectations.”
Their belief that their daughter was the best thing since sliced bread had built up Susannah’s dangerously high self-esteem.
So much of who Susannah is comes from exactly that – her parents. Not that they’re necessarily atrocious people. They, too, are a lot more complex than they first appeared. Because Dare to Dream was told from Marley’s perspective. Not from Susannah’s. We didn’t see the inner workings of their family, although we got hints of it from time to time, including when we first met Susannah’s older brother Pete.
He’d always been much more personable and good-natured than the rest of his family. Always very protective of his sister though, Marley recalled, and his next words backed that up. “She’s got things tough, you know. Try cutting her a bit of slack.”
Even as he continued to be the friendlier of the siblings, the issues around his family and the immense pressure they were both under quickly became clear.
“Civil engineering,” Pete said. “Dad wanted me to get a Law degree, but I flunked out. Huge waste of money and a massive disappointment, that’s me,” he added, trying to sound casual but unable to mask the bitterness in his voice.
“In my family it’s win or nothing, and a round like you just jumped would bring the wrath of my father down on Ajax’s head.”
I won’t say any more, in case you haven’t read Dare to Dream yet. (You really should. You’ll get a lot more out of Triple Bar if you have the prior knowledge.)
Although Susannah was somewhat redeemed in the end of Dare to Dream, when she returned in Dream On nobody was pleased to see her, and they made their feelings quite clear.
The show grounds were buzzing with the news of her presence, and when Susannah knocked three rails in her first class, at least five separate people came by to tell Marley that Susannah had ridden terribly, that she’d been booed when she went into the ring, and that everyone had applauded when she’d ridden out with twelve faults.
“Hey, did you hear that Susannah Andrews fell off in the metre-ten this morning? We gave her a standing ovation.”
But I no longer thought of Susannah as a villain. In Dare to Dream, she was a spoiled child, thoughtlessly repeating her family’s mantra and doing her best to live up to their expectations. Like many young teens, she still looked to her family for guidance in life, and she still believed that her parents knew best. But by the time she returned in Dream On, she was a different person. And Marley is the only person who seems to be big enough to put the past behind her. One of my favourite scenes involving Susannah is this one:
The girls looked at one another for a moment, then Marley spoke. “Well done today.”
Susannah nodded. “Thanks. Same to you.”
Marley couldn’t tell if she was sincere, but Susannah had never been very subtle before, so she decided the other girl probably meant it.
Susannah tied Buck to the railing and reached for the hose. “That mare of yours can really jump.”
She’s not mine. “Yeah, she sure can,” Marley agreed. “I just wish she wanted to.”
Susannah looked at Maggie for a long moment. “I don’t suppose she has a choice.”
She turned her back to Marley, running the cold hose over Buck’s legs, and Marley clicked her tongue to Maggie and led her away.
Susannah’s family was now fractured, and tension was building amongst them. No matter how hard she tried, no matter how much her riding had improved, nobody was willing to cut her any slack. Nobody cheered when she won, and almost nobody believed that she’d truly changed.
And that’s a sentiment that carried over into First Fence and Double Clear, as evidenced by Katy’s reaction to Susannah in both of those books, particularly when Susannah looks like taking her pony away from her in Double Clear:
Mum looked unconvinced. “She’s riding a lot better these days.”
“In public,” I agreed. “She has to. She could hardly come back out and ride the way she used to after everything that happened. But what about behind closed doors? What’s going on there?”
You’re about to find out.