I saw something on the library shelf today that caught my eye. The book is called Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri. Let me just say that it wasn’t the cover that caught my eye, but the title and theme. This is an urban horse story about a boy and a horse. These days the literary (and I use the term literary very loosely) landscape is filled with horse stories are that girly affairs, you know, great big metaphors on four legs with a saddle. This was a boy\horse story. Such stories of boys on horses were far more common place when I was growing up than they are today. Having been an urban cowboy myself growing up in Portland Oregon with a horse of my own, I couldn’t resist this.
Ghetto Cowboy is the story about Cole, a young seventh grader that is no stranger to trouble. When he gets caught skipping the last four weeks of school, Cole’s mother has had all she can take. Taking Cole out of Detroit, she deposits him on his father’s door step in Philadelphia. His father, Harper a man whom Cole has never met, runs an urban stable where he buys retired race horses and tries to get inner-city kids interested in riding and caring for horses. The city of Philadelphia has gone out of its way to shut all inner-city stables down, and is working on ousting Harper’s stable. The story does have a happy ending, but it’s not an easy ending.
The book is marvelous in it’s portrayal of a boy and his estranged father struggling to connect to each other. Neri chose to write his characters complete with inner city vernacular and dialect, so I imagine some parents are going fuss over the lack of proper English and may even criticize Neri for “stereotyping” his characters. The language suits the characters and setting without loosing readers unfamiliar to urban life. Unfortunately, some people are going to gripe anyway.
Neri’s based his story on a magazine article about urban African-American riders of North Philadelphia and the Brooklyn-Queens area, and he most certainly paints a relatable inner city portrait, to some who may have never ventured outside of suburbia. He also makes an effort to bring out an often neglected historical fact about black cowboys before the Civil War. The cowboy population of Texas, Oklahoma, and the southwest was predominantly black. They were the first to learn the ways of wrangling from the Mexican vaqueros long before white settlers picked up those skills. I wish Neri could have had more about this in the novel, but the fact that this shows up at all is still marvelous.
Anyone that loves realistic fiction about horses will enjoy this story immensely. Neri does a fine job at making Cole identifiable and likable to any reader willing to give the story their full attention.