I’m delighted that you’re considering The Eighty-Dollar Champion for your book group. On occasion, I’m able to visit book groups, either in person (in the Los Angeles area) or via Skype.
If you’re interested in inviting me to be part of your book club discussion of The Eighty-Dollar Champion, please let me know by sending me an E-Mail with the words “Book Club” in the subject line. Please be sure to include the location and date.
Reader Guide for
The Perfect Horse
1. Alois Podhajsky said, “Equestrian art is, perhaps more than any other, closely related to the wisdom of life.” What does he mean by this? Is the relationship between horse and man fundamentally different from the relationship between humans and other animals, or is it similar?
2. The Spanish Riding School of Vienna has survived for five centuries in spite of wars and changes of governments that have toppled many more mighty institutions. What was special about the Spanish Riding School that helped it survive?
3. In The Perfect Horse we see how ideas developed to improve animal breeding contributed to the pseudoscience of eugenics—an early 20th century movement to improve the human race that eventually contributed to the Nazi philosophy of racial purity. Are there any drawbacks to breeding purebred animals? What made people want to apply the theories of animal breeding to humans? Do you think this could ever happen again?
4. Several of the major players in this story had a connection to the Olympic Games. George Patton competed in 1912, Podhajsky in 1936. Reed was an alternate for the 1932 team. How did the Olympic experience shape these men and how did it influence their decisions during the war?
5. George Patton famously said that during peacetime, playing polo was the closest that an officer could get to real combat. Many of World War II’s most brilliant leaders were horsemen, and many believed that eliminating the training on horseback would be an irreparable loss to the Army. What was it about their devotion to horses that made them so successful in war? Does working with animals teach skills that are impossible to learn in any other way?
6. There were surprisingly few events during World War II in which men from opposing sides joined together in a common task. Why did the German horsemen risk treason to join with the Americans? What would have likely happened if the Germans had decided to stay put and wait for the end of the war? Given the circumstances, did everyone involved make the right decision?
7. Critics of Patton have said that he was more concerned about gathering up Lipizzaner horses than with saving human refugees and concentration camp survivors. Given the number of other atrocities going on in late April, 1945, was it worth the sacrifice of men and manpower to safeguard the horses?
8. The bravery and selflessness of Captain Tom Stewart, who followed orders to ride across enemy lines to negotiate the stud farm’s release, seems striking to a modern reader. As the son of a sitting senator, certainly he could have been spared being put into such a dangerous situation. What was it about Tom Stewart’s character that was exceptional? Were the morals and motivations of the World War II’s citizen soldiers different from the way people view their duty and honor today?
9. While the Lipizzaner were mostly returned to their native Austria, Witez was shipped to America, eventually sold off at auction, and never returned to his native Poland. The author, in her research, discovered that the Poles were actively trying to reclaim Witez before he was ever shipped to America, but the Americans were distrustful of the Poles and dismissed their claims to the horse. Should Witez have been returned to Poland or was his rightful place in America?
10. At Hank Reed’s funeral, more than twenty of the men who had served under him came to pay their respects. What was it about Hank Reed’s background, training, or education made his men so devoted to him.? What can we learn about leadership by looking at the lives of the men and women who were part of “The Greatest Generation?”
Click here to download The Perfect Horse Discussion Questions in PDF form
Reader Guide for
The Eighty-Dollar Champion
1. The Eighty-Dollar Champion takes place in the mid-to-late 1950s. What were some of the things that struck you as different from the world of today? Do you think this story could happen now?
2. Harry overcomes extraordinary circumstances: war, immigration, and poverty. Do you think he was typical of a man of his generation or do you think he possessed a special quality that helped him to succeed?
3. What do you think made Harry decide to purchase Snowman from the slaughterhouse truck? Do you think they shared a special bond? Do you believe animals and humans can sometimes communicate on levels other than talk?
4. Harry, as a professional athlete, was often looked down upon in an era when professional athletes were seen as less prestigious than wealthy amateurs who competed “just for sport.” Were you surprised by how different this is from the world of today, when professional athletes are highly paid celebrities? Do you think the move to professionalism in sports has been good or bad for sports in general?
5. In The Eighty-Dollar Champion, the author describes 1958 as a time of uncertainty for many Americans — there was a steep recession and international tensions over the cold war were rapidly escalating. What parallels do you see between the late 1950s and today? What is different?
6. Snowman had neither the looks, pedigree, or training background of most other champions. What was special about Snowman and what might have made him this way? Do you think he could have done as well with any rider, or was it something about the Harry and Snowman team that made them special?
7. Harry and Johanna seem to have the perfect life, but at the end of the story we learn that many years later they would divorce. How did you feel about this? What do you think about the societal changes that would occur in the 1960s and 1970s and how do you think these changes might have affected families like the Deleyers?
8. Harry was not a rich man and he had a family to support, but when given the chance to sell Snowman for what was then a huge sum of money, he refused. Do you think most people would do the same? Do you think Harry made the right decision?
9. How did you feel when Snowman passed away? Did you understand Harry’s reaction and why he left? Do you think people in our society understand the depth of grief some of us feel when losing a beloved animal?
10. Author Jane Smiley has said that every horse story is, at its essence, a love story. Do you see The Eighty-Dollar Champion as a love story? What is the power of horse stories that make them perennial favorites? What is it about horses that seems to move us so deeply?