Critical Review by Patty Campbell
SOURCE: A review of Taming the Star Runner, in The New York Times Book Review, April 2, 1989, p. 26.
In the following review, Campbell offers praise for the compelling nature of Taming the Star Runner as well as for the authenticity of its characters, but finds fault with Hinton's use of the horse as a symbol.
"His boot felt empty without his knife in it," begins S. E. Hinton's fifth novel, Taming the Star Runner. A young hood, desperately tough and desperately vulnerable, is on his way to exile on his uncle's horse ranch—and in one paragraph the reader is back in familiar Hinton country after a hiatus of 10 years. What bearing does this new book have on the literary and popular reputation of Susan Eloise Hinton, who at 16 wrote The Outsiders, a novel that, in 1967, gave birth to the new realism in adolescent literature, and who has since achieved almost mythical status as the grand dame of young adult novelists?
This has been a year of assessment and recognition for Ms. Hinton. Last July the American Library Association gave its first Young Adult Services Division/School Library Journal Author Achievement Award to her, and earlier a scholarly study, Presenting S. E. Hinton, by Jay Daly, evaluated her work and placed it in perspective in the mainstream of American literature. In the shadow of The Outsiders' success, Ms. Hinton produced three other novels at four-year intervals: That Was Then, This Is Now, Rumble Fish and Tex. But after that her energies were absorbed by her participation in the movies based on her books and by the rearing of her son. Now Ms. Hinton has produced another story of a tough young Galahad in black T-shirt and leather jacket. The pattern is familiar, but her genius lies in that she has been able to give each of the five protagonists she has drawn from this mythic model a unique voice and a unique story.
In Taming the Star Runner, 15-year-old Travis conceals his budding talent as a writer under a carefully cool exterior. When he nearly kills his stepfather in a fight, he is sent to his Uncle Ken's horse ranch, and there he finds himself very much out of his milieu. It's "invisible-man time again" with the "hick jocks and hick nerds" at school. Out of loneliness, he begins to hang around the horse barn where 18-year-old Casey Kencaide has a riding school. Watching her dominate her dangerous stallion, Star Runner, he falls in love with her but keeps it to himself. Unexpectedly, Travis gets a letter from a publisher accepting a novel that he has written. He is ecstatic, but has trouble finding someone to share his pleasure. When Casey wins a difficult jumping competition with Star Runner at a horse show, he kisses her and she grudgingly admits what he had felt was the "strange tie, bond, fate, between them."
The sky darkens as Travis's old friend Joe comes fleeing the city, terrified by his part in a double murder. Travis realizes that he may have escaped from his old life just in time. Then, when a tornado strikes, Star Runner leaps the fence and gallops off across the fields with Casey and Travis in wild, exultant pursuit in a Jeep. Lightning crashes, and Travis and Casey are knocked unconscious. They awake to an empty pasture and a smell of burning flesh. The reader is left to surmise that the mystical Star Runner has been killed. Later, Travis finds that something wild has gone out of his passion for Casey, but that they have become close friends. As the book ends, the young man has reached some contentment with his life and is about to begin a second novel.
Taming the Star Runner is remarkable for its drive and the wry sweetness and authenticity of its voice. Gone is the golden idealism of the earlier works, perhaps because here Ms. Hinton observes, rather than participates, in the innocence of her characters. The autobiographical passages that give glimpses of a past painful time in her own adolescence are most interesting: the young writer bumbling through an awkward first lunch with the publisher or becoming inarticulate at a television interview.
The symbolism of the horse is less successful. At first, Star Runner is seen as demonic, even erotic, but later Travis muses on him as an alien being from space. In the chase he seems to become a nameless wild force out of control, perhaps creativity itself. The symbol never quite comes into focus and consequently fails to carry its weight in the plot, leaving the ending unclear—a fault that young adult readers find particularly annoying.
Because Taming the Star Runner is also a more mature and difficult work, it may not be as wildly popular as the other Hinton books have continued to be with succeeding generations. Are those novels stuck in time? A check with youth librarians across the country shows that Hinton readers are younger than they used to be, and if The Outsiders is no longer the cult novel it once was, perhaps that is because so many teachers are using it in the classroom. But S. E. Hinton continues to grow in strength as a young adult novelist.