The Bookworm: Pony and not-so-fairy tales

Terri Schlichenmeyer

“West Like Lightning: The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express”

  • By Jim DeFelice
  • c. 2018, Wm. Morrow
  • $27.99, $34.99 Canada; 357 pages

Click. No stamps. And: email sent. You didn’t have to hunt an envelope down, and no trip to the mailbox; within a minute or so, the recipient of your missive read it and he can reply as quickly, even if he lives on the other side of the world. You’ve got to love technology; even more so after you’ve read “West Like Lightning” by Jim DeFelice.

“West Like Lightning: The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express” by Jim DeFelice.

Everyone was tense on that evening in November 1860, but nobody more so than the young man who was pacing on a porch in Fort Kearny, Nebraska. As soon as word came from St. Louis – word that held the fate of the United States – he’d jump aboard a pony and head west because he was an employee of the Central Overland California & Pikes Peak Express Company, the Pony Express, or just “the Pony.”

The Pony had begun just a few months before, a creation floated by three partners, one of whom was a bit of a criminal. William Hepburn Russell, William B. Waddell, and Alexander Majors knew that success for their endeavor relied on quick missives between Missouri and California at a time “when weeks, if not months, were the norm for coast-to-coast communication.” Ultimately, once riders learned their routes well and knew where the dangers lay (and, incidentally, once most of them became celebrities), the Pony reduced that communication time to a mere 10 days.

“West Like Lightning: The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express” author Jim DeFelice.

But first, funds had to be prepared and contracts signed to the tune of “over $68 million” in today’s money. The company purchased more than 7,500 oxen and thousands of ponies, most of which were “half or mostly wild when bought.” Riders weren’t required to wear uniforms but firearms were necessities, although shooting a weapon was dicey from the back of a horse. Stationmasters and supervisors were hired to hold the whole operation together; they were, says DeFelice, “unsung heroes.”

And yet, despite speedy delivery of the news, despite that the population of the West was growing, despite the romance it would gain over the decades, the Pony was only meant to be temporary.

Eighteen months after it began, it was done.

Imagine, if you will, that your book is embedded with hundreds of tiny firecrackers and each time you read something enlightening or surprising, one crackles.

That’s what it’s like to open “West Like Lightning.”

And it isn’t just that author Jim DeFelice writes about a small page in American history; he also entertains. We learn, with a few wry asides, about the shadiness of one of the Pony’s founders. A little bit of sarcasm floats around tales of the riders themselves. Even the unknown facets of the Pony Express are treated with a what-can-you-do lightness that makes readers want to learn even more. It also helps that DeFelice doesn’t ignore the rest of America ’s colorful characters of those pre-Civil War days …

This is a no-brainer for Western enthusiasts. It’s a must-have for historians and fact-fiends. Start this book and enjoy the ride. “West Like Lightning” will get your stamp of approval.

 “All the Ever Afters”

  • By Danielle Teller
  • c. 2018, Wm. Morrow 
  • $26.99, $33.50 Canada; 376 pages

Your Fairy Godmother is slacking. There’s no magic spell for you, no white-mice-into-horses, and Meghan Markle gets the Prince. You’ll never have a diamond-studded crown. You’ll never have your own castle. As in the new book “All the Ever Afters” by Danielle Teller, maybe there is no Fairy Godmother.

Though she was naught but a child whose mother had died, 10-year-old Agnes’ father decided that he didn’t need two daughters at home so he sent Agnes, alone, to Aviceford Manor, where a job awaited her. There, she toiled from sunup to sundown as a laundry girl, until she was tasked with nursing the habitually besotted lord of the manor, Sir Emont Vis-de-Loup, through an illness.

“All the Ever Afters” by Danielle Teller.

That, and a little cheeky scheming got young Agnes loaned to Ellis Abbey, to work as a nurse for the Abbess Elfilda’s mother, the countess of Wenslock.

Kinder than anyone had been to her in years, Lady Wenslock taught Agnes to read and allowed her a small bit of free time. It was a life of servitude, ‘tis true, but Agnes also made friends – one of them, a charmingly handsome messenger for the abbey and ward of Mother Elfilda. Fernan was a smooth-talker with doe eyes and lovely brown skin and soon, Agnes was with child, yoked to a man who never wanted a wife.

First came Charlotte, and Agnes was enraptured. Then Mathilda arrived, followed by Catherine, and Agnes’ life was complete – until the pox took her baby and her husband and threatened to ruin Mathilda’s life. But before that could happen, the tattered family was uprooted again by the Abbess Elfilda, who seized Agnes’ alehouse in an inheritance disagreement.

“All the Ever Afters” author Danielle Teller.

Her children in a convent and with nowhere else to go, Agnes was sent back to the place where she started: Aviceford Manor, where Sir Emont had married a “wild” woman and begat a child who needed a wetnurse.

Agnes missed her daughters. She missed her old life and her old friends. Fairies don’t exist, as she’d learned when she was a wee girl, but was it too much to ask for a bit of fairy tale ending?

Chances are, the four-year-old you scrunched up your nose at the evil stepmother and two ugly stepsisters part of a certain story. Ugh, you were supposed to do that – but now you can unscrunch: “All the Ever Afters” is going to turn your world around.

Far from being cartoonish, nowhere near humorous, but certainly not as gruesome as the original German version, this re-told “Cinderella” is wonderfully elegant in its Medieval manners and aristocratic language. With that courtliness as background, author Danielle Teller woos readers into taking a better, more open-eyed look at a character that’s been maligned for centuries, one with strength and who’s worthy of stunned sympathy. And those “ugly” stepsisters?  Beware: they’ll break your heart in two.

Perfect for mature Princesses, “All the Ever Afters” is one classy take on an old classic and is hard to put down, once started. So should you read it?

Bibbidy-bobbedy … do!

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.