Book Review: Pie in the Sky by Jane Smiley

With no disrespect to Kirkus Reviews, I had to smile at the assertion that the problems in Pie in the Sky were not strong enough, so that the story lacked tension. Perhaps the reviewer has never ridden with confidence into a show ring on a well-schooled, beloved horse and had absolutely everything fall apart. It’s a bit like the nightmare in which you dream you are in public naked. The thing is, you’re mortified for yourself and your horse, who is so much better than his shoddy performance. Oh, the guilt!

That’s what’s happening in Pie in the Sky to Abby and to Sophie, who’s rich, yes, but also a perfectionist. The misery Abby is feeling over True Blue?s failure is no different from Sophie’s misery at not being able to bring out the best in her horse, Pie in the Sky.

Abby and Sophie find themselves in a clinic with one of the top Olympians of the day. He likes Abby’s riding but says Blue is worthless, and he insults Sophie so badly she dismounts and leaves the ring. Now those are Problems with a capital P to any horse lover.

It doesn’t matter that Blue cost $5.60 (see my review of True Blue) and Pie’s price was many thousands of dollars. This is about girls and their horses, and it’s riveting.

Unlike True Blue, in which Abby has a broken arm and can’t ride, Pie in the Sky contains a lot of detail about the way Abby works the horses in her charge. She’s a good, sensitive rider. The author also delves into the disconnect between traditional training in the 60s and the “new” natural horsemanship (horse whisperer stuff).

Not only are Abby and Sophie dealing with horse problems, they’re entering high school, a nerve-wracking time for any 14-year-old. Their experiences there will draw knowing smiles and a few winces from young readers.

It’s a compelling read, my favorite of Smiley’s series on Abby Lovitt and her family. What puzzles me about the books is why the author chose to set them in the 1960s, 40 years before her target readership was born. In Pie in the Sky, Abby’s brother faces the prospect of being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. Do kids today know anything about that tumultuous era in this country’s history, and its impact on countless families?

While I can easily identify with the 60s, can middle-schoolers who are used to microwaves, television, computers and cell phones, and who know more than they should about the ugly realities of drugs, alcohol and abuse? Abby is the consummate innocent, a babe in the woods who cares about her horses, family, dog and friends–not necessarily in that order. I hope readers appreciate the simple values she and her family live by.

Published by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, Jane Smiley’s Pie in the Sky is 257 pages, for readers 10 and up. It’s available from in hardcover ($11.55) and Kindle ($10.99).

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