I have a lot of love for KM Peyton. And I’ve spoken before about how she just gets love. She gets it, warts and all.
But I’ve never specifically focused on Ruth before which is a disservice to a shaded, finely drawn character that does something very unusual in a series. She grows. I’m reminded of some of the other series I love when I think of Ruth and I’m forced to concede that nowhere else does a character grow up, and become an adult with such finesse as her.
Ruth debuts in the book Fly-By-Night. Fly-By-Night is overtly a fairly simple horse tale. Girl gets horse, gets good, and Achieves Stuff. Or well, it would be so, if it weren’t for the skill of KM Peyton. She draws Ruth so finely that it’s impossible not to root for this stubborn, brilliant, puking when things get tense, individual. Fidra Books have a sample of the first chapter of Fly-by-night available here and it’s worth reading if not just to marvel at the subtle shading and weight of Peyton’s prose.
Ruth then appears in the sequel to Fly-By-Night called The Team. It’s easy to view this again as a standard equestrienne novel but I’d argue it’s more of a bildungsroman. This, as awful and painful as it is to read, is the end of the beginning. It is a novel full of maturity, of letting things go, of saying goodbye, and of falling in love. It’s nominally about horses but, at heart, it’s about life.
I read these two books and I devoured them. And then, for a long time, I didn’t know how Ruth’s story ended. This all changed once I came across the Pennington trilogy. The Pennington books are a trilogy which focus on the tempestuous Patrick Pennington, gifted with preternatural musical ability.
And Ruth falls in love with him. Not any of the other boys she’s seemingly destined to be with, she falls in love with this anti-establishment near Byronic hero. Whilst Ruth is certainly taken with his (and I’m sorry but I can’t think of any other way to phrase this) “bad boy attitude”, I think their relationship thrives on a curious mixture of naivety and adulthood. Pennington completes Ruth. He manifests a part of her nature – the nature which went out and did the exact opposite of what everyone told her to do – and their relationship is a fragile, awkward and yet intensely passionate affair. And it’s real. It’s bitterly, bluntly, beautifully real.
Ruth roots Pennington. She defines him and he, her. They become almost symbiotic in nature, the two of them against the world. Ruth understands Pennington and she does it so very beautifully.
“Ruth … thought of the long afternoon in Kensington on the velvet sofa, listening to Pat playing the piano. The contrast was so sharp it was hard to believe. Pentonville [the prison] to the sea-wall, the Professor’s town house to this. No wonder Pat was mixed-up. It was all a part of him, what had made him.” Pennington’s Heir (1973:19)
I had a lot of difficulty, at first, accepting this grown up, perceptive, Ruth as opposed to the horse mad creation I initially met. I wept for the girl I had lost, and I felt sad for the ponies. But then, I spent a lot of time with the Pennington books for my research and I realised something.
Ruth is perhaps one of the ‘realest’ female character I’ve ever come across. She could define literary verisimilitude. She’s stubborn, she’s flawed, and she makes mistakes. She was horse obsessed – but she grew, and she changed. It never defined who she was and I find it genuinely masterful of Peyton to allow Ruth to map her own way through life rather than force her down a more stereotypically Pullein-Thompson future. Ruth grows. She grows, and she changes, and she lives her life how she wants to live it.
Ruth Hollis is amazing.
More information on the work of KM Peyton is available on her official website.