Anyone who starts reading Cobbler’s Dream expecting to find themselves in the world of tv’s Follyfoot (the 1970s YTV show was inspired by the book) is going to face a harsh reality. Yes, it’s about a rest home for horses and the dysfunctional group of people who work there, but this book wasn’t written for children, unlike Dickens’ later works based on the tv show (Follyfoot, Dora at Follyfoot, The Horses at Follyfoot, Stranger at Follyfoot). Familiar names are there though: Dora (a much chunkier, horsier girl than the tv version), The Captain (the Colonel for television), Slugger and Ron Stryker.
Dickens had strong humanitarian involvements and at the time of writing her 1963 book Cobbler’s Dream she was an active supporter of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). Cobbler’s Dream explores cruelty and sadism; images in the book are intended to shock the reader and raise awareness of the plight of mistreated animals.
For example in the first chapter a man and girl visiting the Farm meet “a farmer’s horse stolen out of a field, ridden all night by a gang of boys with a piece of wire in his mouth for a bridle, and left torn and bleeding in a gravel pit with half his tongue gone.” The girl looks sick when she learns this. The man is merely keen to move on and get to the pub for dinner. Dickens is pointing out the way society conveniently ignores that which is unpleasant to it.
The title of the book refers to a champion show jumping pony, Cobbler’s Dream, who is rescued in Chapter 2 by his groom Paul. The pony’s twelve-year-old owner has beaten the horse severely, enough to cause blindness in one eye. The family who own the horse intend to sell him to the knackers; Paul steals him and finds his way to the Farm. (In Cobbler’s Dream, the home of rest for horses is simply ‘the Farm’; the name Follyfoot was coined for the tv show and subsequent books.)
If there is cruelty, there is also sentimentality. This book uses plenty of hooks to engage the reader’s emotions, not least a scene where Paul finds a horse locked in a narrow shed, standing on a solid pile of manure with its head sticking out the roof: “‘Oh God.’ His heart was flooded with a surge of rage and pity so intense that he clenched his fists and stood there for a moment trembling, his eyes closed against tears. When he opened them, the hollow, suffering eye looked into his, and he knew that the horse was his child, his treasure, his dearest care.”
This can be an uncomfortable novel to read for animal lovers; man’s inhumanity to animals is described in more detail than in the successive books in the Follyfoot series. Despite one of the main characters being twelve years old (Callie), Cobbler’s Dream could give a twelve year old reader nightmares. As adolescent and young adult fiction, however, it ticks idealistic boxes and is a powerful reminder that we as a species are responsible for the welfare of others. Almost fifty years after initial publication, it provides a view of Britain that has long gone: pit ponies, circus horses, horses who work for a living pulling carts and vans. For the mobile phone generation, or readers graduating from The Saddle Club, this could prove to be a hard novel to get into, but it’s worth persevering. The characters are well-drawn and where there is darkness there is also light just a little further on.
Cobbler’s Dream is an episodic novel; there is no galloping towards a big climax, instead there are a series of peaks and troughs, of struggles and successes, of horses lost and horses saved, the final episode involving the title horse himself.
The Farm is also the saviour of unwanted people who, like the horses, end up calling it home: Paul, Callie and her mother Anna. All Dickens’ characters develop over the course of the book as we learn more of their back stories; there is no long description when we first meet them, their stories are woven effortlessly into the narrative. They have no compunction about breaking the law to save an animal, either. Both Paul and Callie steal horses to give them a better life at the Farm. The human story lines work around the animal ones and resolve by the end of the book.
Uncomfortable it can sometimes be, but Cobbler’s Dream is compelling reading. Dickens writes beautifully; at times economical, at times with that wry touch that makes you smile and admire her craft as a storyteller. Her love of animals and her knowledge of horses makes this an authentic book with a lot more depth than her Follyfoot series which followed.
Cobbler’s Dream is currently out of print but you may find it online on eBay or second-hand booksellers – or even your local church fete or jumble sale. Other titles in the Follyfoot series are being progressively reprinted; it remains to be seen if Cobbler’s Dream is considered too ‘adult’ to be reprinted as a children’s book.