The Winter Pony is a terribly sad story. It’s also a touching tribute to an unsung hero of the race for the South Pole in the early 1910s.
If you’re familiar with the epic race between the triumphant Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, and the bumbling dunderhead, Englishman Robert Falcon Scott, you know how the story ends. Lawrence adds a new twist. He tells the story of Scott’s ill-planned, ill-prepared and ill-fated polar expedition through the eyes of one of 19 ponies brought along on the expedition, a “plucky little animal” named James Pigg.
Pigg’s early life is a product of the author’s imagination. But many of the subsequent facts Pigg narrates regarding the Terra Nova’s voyage to the South Pole and the expedition itself are true.
It is likewise true that Scott was lauded as some kind of national demi-god for some 60 years after his arrogance and incompetence likely got himself, his men, and the ponies killed on the unforgiving ice. Meanwhile, Amundsen was seen as a scoundrel who had the bad manners to snatch the prize of First to the Pole from the more deserving, long-suffering British.
That load of horse hooey was largely put to rest by Roland Huntford’s thoroughly documented, meticulously researched, The Last Place on Earth.
Lawrence alludes to Huntford’s work on page 242 of The Winter Pony. But he doesn’t name it. He doesn’t have to. I recognized it. I’ve read it.
In the same section, Lawrence makes the case that “Scott was nothing if not kind to his ponies.” The author believes that Scott’s “kindness” and his “reluctance to push the animals too hard in the first year of his expedition” wound up killing Scott (p 242).
Perhaps. A better argument would be that if Scott had Clue One and truly cared about the ponies, he wouldn’t have brought them to that God-forsaken icy wilderness in the first place.
Clearly, the South Place is no place for ponies. Not even for one as “plucky” or as big-hearted and sweet-tempered as old James Pigg.
The Winter Pony is a fresh look at an old tragedy from a unique point of view. It’s beautifully written. Compelling and engaging. At times it’s reminiscent of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty. I read it cover-to-cover in half a day.
As sad as this story is, it’s good to know that the celestial points of navigation above Antarctica were recently named in honor of the ponies and dogs who served and died in man’s quest for the South Pole. It’s a fitting tribute to the animals who worked so hard and gave so much in the race to the last place on earth.
The Winter Pony is a sturdy story. Definitely a worthy read. You may want to bring tissue. And an extra blanket.