Talk about horsepower. Writer G. Neri and illustrator Corban Wilkin deliver a high-octane story about one woman’s battle to save a race horse from an industry that by and large values money above all else. In this second-hand memoir, Neri’s masterful narration makes it clear why his previous work (Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty) received such high praise, including the prestigious Coretta Scott King Honor—as if we had any doubt. The biography centers on the author’s larger-than-life cousin, Gail Ruffu, a horse whisperer whose unconventional training methods put her at odds with powerful forces within the United States race circuit during the early 2000s.

As partial owner of Urgent Envoy, a fiery young thoroughbred, Gail’s wealthy business partners force Urgent Envoy to begin racing much too soon. After the horse suffers a hairline shin fracture, the pressure is on to use drugs and the whip to compete at all costs. Fearing the worst, Gail steals her own horse and goes into hiding. Thus begins a long, upward battle against a vindictive business partner who will stop at nothing to get back his “property.”

Along the way, Gail loses her training license, job, and home. She moves into her truck, takes a crash course in the law, and engages in a legal battle that pushes her to the limits. It is only the deep bond between woman and horse that keeps her head above water as the fight moves beyond the personal to take on the horse racing industry writ large.

While Neri’s masterful storytelling conveys the strength of this bond through the written word, it is Wilkin’s artistry that makes the depth of emotion almost palpable. The illustrations are at their best when stripped down to the basics, filtering out unnecessary content to focus only on Gail and her horse. Frames that show the pair exchanging a playful nudge or an affectionate glance suggest a vulnerability that made me want to protect them against the world’s cruelty. I suspect readers will experience a similar connection, thanks in large part to the synergy of text and image. In one particularly memorable frame, the two elements work seamlessly together—silhouettes of Gail and Urgent Envoy form the image’s border while the text balloon reads, “Well, I guess it’s just you and me.”

Wilkin’s adeptness within the visual medium also comes through in the line choices he makes. Multiple jagged lines that run in every direction or radiate from the page add movement and visual excitement that enhance the storyline’s visceral impact. This is especially effective when documenting key plot points such as the mistreatment of horses and the struggles Gail faces as she fights back. Jagged edges around speech balloons also cued me in to the emotional context of verbal exchanges while extreme character close-ups heightened the intensity. Such methods brought the dialogue to life so vividly that I could virtually “hear” the characters as they spoke. Speaking of characters, Wilkin’s use of line also shines through with his straightforward approach to their visual depictions. With a few strokes of the pen, he rejects generic treatment of feminine and masculine features in favor of strong lines that form a prominent nose and square jawline that make Gail look as strong as she is. On the other hand, her partner-turned-nemesis is the embodiment of evil with alternating long and pointy lines designed to over- and under-emphasize features in all their angular glory.

When it comes to frame composition, careful placement of objects serves as a powerful tool to enhance thematic ideas. For example, as Gail is brought in to the police station for questioning, we see her in the forefront looking up at an officer while an ominous group of observers fill the background. These men are her main adversaries, and the visual imbalance reveals just how outnumbered she is. This imbalance of power ties in closely with another of the story’s central themes, the importance of voice. Neri tackles a serious issue as he reveals how Gail’s status, a single woman struggling with poverty, relegates her to the sidelines. Despite her wisdom and knowledge gleaned through years of working with horses, no one listens to what she has to say. Instead, it is the rich and often male characters whose voices get heard. Time and again she speaks up for the humane treatment of horses backed by a logical argument that points out the benefits to all parties. Her routine dismissal is excruciating to observe both visually and textually. That is not to say Gail is without support, which interestingly comes in the form of other marginalized characters such as a same-sex couple who offer her income and shelter when no one else will. We also find a sympathetic friend in fellow horse trainer Spooner, whose name (whether intentionally or not) aptly reflects his uncanny ability to get the “inside scoop”. Ultimately, it is Gail’s appointed lawyer, Eleanor Ehrlich, who starts to reverse the downward momentum. Without giving away too much, the trial is downright exhilarating, and I must admit I had shivers as Gail’s voice is finally heard.

While this is by no means the end of her battle, readers will appreciate the much-needed reprieve from a storyline that can be emotionally draining with its many injustices, trials, and tribulations. However, I found the ending highly satisfying, with lots to think about long after reading the last page. With the addition of back matter that features photographs of Gail and Urgent Envoy as well as an inspiring call to action from Gail herself, the graphic novel enhances reader involvement both on a personal level and perhaps even a more socially conscious one. Readers particularly touched by the story will appreciate the discussion of how to get involved in the push for reform within the horse racing industry.

The story, appropriate for readers ages 12 and up, would be a great addition to any public or school library collection. With its incorporation of really cool informational tidbits about horses, the obvious hook may be for horse lovers, but I can honestly say that despite my limited equine background, I thoroughly enjoyed it as well. Gail’s impassioned yet refreshingly simple message to treat all living things with respect and kindness in addition to the underdog vs. establishment approach provides a sense of universality that most, if not all, of us, can relate to.

Grand Theft Horse
by G. Neri
Art by Corban Wilkin
ISBN: 9781620148556
Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books Inc, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: 12 and up

  • Johanna

    Past Reviewer

    This reviewer is not longer actively working on our site, but we would not be here if not for our many dedicated contributors over the years. We thank all of them for their reviews, features, and support! Johanna Nelson is a full-time graduate student pursuing her MLIS at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Through her studies, she discovered a love for the graphic novel format thanks to the likes of Raina Telgemeier and Art Spiegelman. While the two may seem like opposite ends of the spectrum, both masterfully combine narrative and picture to create a compelling, rich story greater than the parts alone. As an aspiring school librarian, who will soon be on the path to teacher greatness through dual certification in education and library media specialization, Johanna also loves to explore the seemingly endless possibilities graphic novels hold when it comes to teaching and building literacy skills, helping English language learners, reaching out to reluctant readers and matching each and every kiddo with just the right book thanks to the wide range of subject matter available in this format. Prior to leading the “glamorous” life of a toiling student, Johanna served as features editor for a cheese and dairy trade newspaper that helped to cultivate her writing skills as well as her love for deliciously unique artisan cheeses – triple cream anyone? She also has held several library positions including page and library specialist in the children’s department of a public library. In her free time, she enjoys embracing her inner nerd through watching Jeopardy!, doing crossword and jigsaw puzzles, bird watching, hiking, sketching, and of course, reading whatever she can get her hands on.

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