Ursula Dubosarsky is an Australian children's writer who has published over 20 books for children of all ages, and won a record seven national Australian literary awards. Her most recent titles are Theodora's Gift, The Red Shoe, a novel set during the Petrov spy crisis in 1954, and Rex, the Class Pet, illustrated by David Mackintosh. Ursula has three children and lives in Sydney. Below, she discusses Horace McCoy's They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
Ursula Dubosarsky on They Shoot Horses, Don't They? by Horace McCoy
There's a curious moment in your life as a child when you decide for the first time to read a book that's written for adults. It's one of the great mysteries, of course, for children's writers such as I am, that by the age of eight or nine a keen reader can read the words of any number of adult novels, but what kind of meaning do those words have? What should children read? What do they enjoy?
The first adult book I read was Horace McCoy's 1935 novel They Shoot Horses, Don't They? I read it as a nine-year-old, in my father's study. When I was bored as a child I liked to wander about the house from room to room, looking at things and thinking about them. I actually spent quite a lot of time knocking on walls with the hope of discovering secret passages and priest's holes that I had read about in British adventure stories, not at all deterred by the inconvenient fact that I lived in a house built in the 1960s in suburban Sydney, rather far from the perils of the reign of Elizabeth 1.
My father's study was a favourite room, having an almost historic atmosphere, with its huge glass-topped desk, the typewriter, the inkwells and piles and piles of paper held down with paperweights, a lovely brown leather chair and tall shelves of books going up to the ceiling. At the time he was a member of parliament, but he'd been a journalist and a barrister as well, and the room reflected this. The walls were covered with political cartoons and there were unusual bits of statuary of distinguished colonial politicians scattered here and there amongst the volumes and sheafs - Sir Henry Parkes with his long beard and (broken) hand raised in the air; a substantial bust of federationist Bernhard Ringrose Wise, with a marvellous moustache and (to me) tragic visionary plaster eyes.
Anyway, I remember sitting on the floor squeezed up next to Bernie, as we called him, with the Penguin paperback of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? I'd pulled it off one of the high shelves because of the word 'horses'. I wasn't a particularly horsey nine-year-old, but I did like animals. How nice to find a book about animals in this unexpected place, wedged in amongst titles like Great Murder Trials and Hanged in Error. And it was a slim book, only about 100 pages, a child-friendly quality.
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is the first and undoubtedly best novel of American fighter pilot, failed actor, self-confessed hack screenwriter and one time marathon dance bouncer, Horace McCoy, who died in 1955 in Hollywood at the age of 58, broke, depressed and already by his own account, 'fat from too much food and booze'. Although later made into an Academy Award winning film with Jane Fonda in 1969, the book, belonging to the hard-boiled crime genre, was not a big seller on its release. But then in post-World War II Europe, it was 'discovered' and praised by writers like Sartre, Gide and Malraux, with de Beauvoir claiming it as 'the first existentialist novel to have appeared in America'.
Obviously ignorant of all this pedigree, I read it that day in 1970 at the age of nine in one seemingly breathless draft, not even noticing the lack of horses. It's a Depression story of a degrading marathon dance competition, where would-be actors Robert and Gloria pair up, hoping either to be spotted by a talent scout or even to win the $1000 prize. The days and nights continue and the dancers dance on while spectators come and watch them in all their misery and exhaustion. One by one the couples either fall down in utter depletion or are eliminated, their feet broken and their spirits crushed. In the end, Gloria, seeing only a hopeless, endless tunnel of suffering ahead of her in life, let alone the dance marathon, asks Robert to kill her. Which obligingly, he does. As he says, 'They shoot horses, don't they?'
Barely told like that, it probably sounds a ghastly, cynical and nasty tale of assisted suicide. But I certainly didn't experience it that way. I was overwhelmed by it, but only in the good way a book can overwhelm you. For one, I was very struck and excited by its form, which at the time of its original publication was recognized as experimental, and was obviously a revelation to me as a nine-year-old. The narrative unfolds in flashback, punctuated between the chapters by the unfolding italicized words of a judge, who is condemning the narrator to death for murder in what was to me then, and still is, terrifying legal language. I was also very impressed by the narrator's own voice, its clarity, its suppressed emotion, its restrained, almost reasonable observation of awful things, and the mysterious metaphorical nature of the struggle on the dance floor.
Of course, this is not what I would have said at the time! But it's certainly what I felt. How strange reading is - it's hard to imagine a book being less, as they say, relevant to me, a middle-class Australian child, living in a salubrious leafy peninsular suburb with its pleasant Victorian houses overlooking the lapping ferries as they discreetly moved about the lovely dark water below. I'd never heard of a dance marathon or the Depression, I scarcely even knew what the United States was. I knew nothing of abortion, poverty, ambition or money, and the book also unsurprisingly smokes with sex.
What did I make of it? I suppose I thought, so this is the adult world, this is what it is like to be grown up. Yet I didn't feel polluted or disillusioned. That's because the book probably is a minor masterpiece of its kind, at times brilliantly written, and full of strange sad eternal wisdom that somehow I could recognize even at the age of nine.