Friday, February 17, 2012

Adventure classics -- A little horse to love

My Friend Flicka

By Mary O’Hara


I knew Mary O’Hara (born Mary O’Hara Alsop) worked for the movies. But on re-reading her classic story about a boy and his horse, My Friend Flicka, the cinematic quality still amazed me. It opens, “High up on the long hill they called the Saddle Back, behind the ranch and the county road, the boy sat his horse, facing east, his eyes dazzled by the rising sun.”

What I hadn’t known until researching this blog was that the novel’s setting was the real Remount Ranch near Laramie, Wyoming, where O’Hara and her second husband, Swedish horseman Helge Sture-Vasa, ran a sheep ranch and other businesses during the 1920’s and ’30’s. I’d marveled at her detailed descriptions of the ranch’s topography -- now I know where they came from. If I ever get back to Wyoming, I’ve got to see it. The 3,800-acre ranch is privately-owned, but listed as a national landmark, according to

Although the site states the ranch’s name came from its use as a source of horses for the U.S. Cavalry during the 1930’s, O’Hara wrote in her autobiography, Flicka’s Friend, that Sture-Vasa named it because of his work for cavalry remounts during World War I.

(The U.S. military used cavalry into the Second World War. Even pictures of the infantry division in which my father served in the 1930’s show mounted officers and mule-drawn artillery and supply wagons.)

The hardships O’Hara and her husband faced as sheep and horse ranchers mirror those depicted in My Friend Flicka. She and Sture-Vasa met in Hollywood, where she had
made a career as a continuity writer following the failure of her first marriage, to distant cousin Kent Parrot.

Wyoming seemed like an escape from the unreality of the motion picture business. But it took her Hollywood training to dig Remount Ranch out of the economic quagmire of the Great Depression.

First published in a short story version, “My Friend Flicka” grew into a novel at the urging of Bertram Lippincott of the Lippincott publishing firm. “I liked your little story,” O’Hara relates Lippincott saying, “because it’s s-s-so sentimental.”

It was, but a country longing for something to feel good about as the Great Depression slipped into world war turned it into a bestseller. A movie followed, starring the young British actor Roddy McDowall as Ken McLaughlin, and shot in the Technicolor O’Hara’s lush descriptions demanded. The horse-opera hungry decade of the 1950’s even spawned a TV series, which provided the picture for this post.

O’Hara wrote two sequels -- Thunderhead and Green Grass of Wyoming, also successful. But there was no happy ending for her. After a quarter century of marriage, she divorced Sture-Vasa, at least in part because of his admitted infidelities. He remarried; O’Hara did not. After his death, a friend sent her his obituary. It mentioned him as a famous horseman.

(O’Hara’s books, including her autobiography, are available at

(Note to readers looking for a source of ribbon cane syrup in Dallas -- I don't know of a source, but one of the local farmers' markets may have it.)

1 comment:

  1. How very interesting. Could there really have been one novel featuring a horse, and a famous one at that, that I didn't read as a child? But strangely, I don't remember it.