I wish Amazon would let a reviewer use fractions! THE FILLY deserves better than 4 stars, but misses rating 5 by just a little. I'm giving it, as another reviewer did, 4.6 stars. ****+
Reading THE FILLY brought a wave of nostalgia. As a young person some of my favorite books and movies were Westerns. I read every horse story in our public library, and still remember whole scenes from My Friend Flicka, Smoky the Cowhorse, The Red Pony, and The Tiger Roan. I never missed the Western matinee movies on Saturday afternoon (two movies, newsreel, cartoon, superhero serial, singalong, and previews for twenty-five cents!). The film "Red River" made a huge and lasting impression on me; it was and still is one of the best. And, of course, as an adult I never missed an episode of "Rawhide" on tv.
Mark Probst's THE FILLY has a lot of things in common with Red River. They are both built around a cattle drive of hundreds of miles, they both have dust, raging storms, collapsing cattle, hardship, exhausted men, fights, threats, and death along the trail. Both "Red River" and THE FILLY have protagonists-- in this case two of them, Ethan and Travis--who are brave yet sensitive, not violent by nature but willing and able to fight when necessary. The big difference is in "Red River" Montgomery Clift and John Wayne beat the daylights out of each other, and in THE FILLY Ethan and Travis fall in love.
Seventeen-year-old Ethan is a dreamer and a bookworm who wants more than anything in the world to own his own horse, a filly he can raise and train. He has no sexual experience and is rocked by his inexplicable attraction to the new cowboy in town, 22-year-old Travis. Travis, on the other hand, is attracted to Ethan but he knows the score and decides to do something about it. He convinces Ethan to join the cattle drive. Over the months and the miles Ethan and Travis became friends long before they explore either their feelings or their physical need. They plan a future together on a horse ranch of their own. When the cattle drive ends and they have money in hand, they are free to begin their new life. Suddenly harsh reality and violence from an unexpected source stop them dead in their tracks.
Travis and Ethan are likable and sympathetic, and the author's descriptions, especially of the cattle drive, are vivid; you can almost taste the dust. The explicitness of the sex scenes in The Filly is just right for my taste, leaving most of it to the reader's imagination.
I have only two very small quibbles with the story. The first is that, for his age and the era, Travis seems a little too calmly self-understanding in his acceptance and explanation of his own homosexuality, and this gives a very slight feel of being off-kilter historically. The other relates to a startling time gap at the end, which I won't detail because it would be a spoiler. This is Mark Probst's first novel, and that's how writers learn.
Those two small quibbles aside, this is a book that could be given without a qualm to anyone open to a love story between men, but especially to a gay teen. The cover, incidentally, is very attractive and well done; you don't have to hide it from your granny.
I look forward to another book from this author... perhaps a sequel about Travis and Ethan? I can hope.