Overcoming the Odds The Story of Harry and Snowman
BY KATE SMITH
The horse is a beast that represents instincts of the human heart that the human body cannot fulfill.
He is synonymous with beauty and unadulterated power and wildness, whether by his flight over the steeplechase or the wilderness.
"The Eighty-Dollar Champion," by Elizabeth Letts, is a precise documentary of a "horse that inspired a nation." But beneath the begging Disney magic is the ridiculous hope and strong stretching limbs of Snowman and his master, Harry de Leyer, two workhorses who overcame odds of war, poverty and upturned social noses in order to fly.
"I came across the story pretty much by accident," Letts says. "I was looking at -pictures on a website, and I saw this remarkable picture of a horse who was actually jumping over another horse. There was a man riding on his back, and both the horse and the man looked unconcerned by this incredible thing that they were doing. I was intrigued by it."
Letts will share some of that intrigue at The Country Bookshop in Southern Pines on Thursday, Sept. 8, at 7 p.m. for an author talk and signing.
Her previous books, "Quality of Care" and "Family Planning," exhibit her trademark discovery of common people, affirming her idea that the best novels adopt characters and instances that are relatable, yet overcome with life-giving passion. These books, however, are reported by friends to be"semi-biographies" with meticulously built characters. The story of Snowman differs, for it by chance discovered her.
After researching the story of Snowman and Harry de Leyer, Letts embraced the tale as redemptive.
"I was going through a difficult time myself, struggling in my own career, and I was at a place in my life where, as a -mother of four, I felt that it was time for me to get real and abandon my own dreams," she says.
However, as the story unfolded through her exploration and retelling, Letts discovered that unhappy endings only resulted from resigning hopes to fear.
"What I find so incredibly powerful about Harry and Snowman's story is that neither of them had any right to keep on dreaming," she says.
Son of a successful Holland brewer, Harry de Leyer's dreams were planted in the soil of his hometown, St. Oedenrode.
Horses and farming were the joys and successes that grew with him until the Nazi invasion during World War II. The exploitation of freedom had an irrevocable but strengthening affect on de Leyer.
At the age of 13, he showed his courage by carting illegal barreled wheat and rye to hungry mouths. In "The Eighty-Dollar Champion," Letts describes the acquisition of his fortitude as "courage and a view of the world seen between a horse's ears - the two would forever be linked in Harry's mind."
This view of the world acquired by de Leyer and others like him was painful yet defining. Letts writes that "when the horses came back to St. Oedenrode, in many ways they resembled the Dutch people: once far and shiny, now gaunt, with scars on their bodies and a wilder look in their eyes."
After the war, prospects of the simple life de Leyer once desired were as ravaged as the fields his family owned. Clutching $160, with his only possessions in a single crate, he and his new wife, Johanna, sailed off to America. Their first home was a shack with plenty of daylight cracks as they lived the expected immigrant life of tenant farmers on a tobacco farm in Greensboro.
Through a series of curious events, de Leyer was referred to a riding instructor at a girls' school. In search of a gentle horse suitable for his more timid riders, de Leyer drove to a horse auction in Pennsylvania, where he arrived as the rejects were being loaded into a slaughter-house-bound van.
It was through the truck's slats that de Leyer was introduced to the kind brown eyes of an injured malnourished gelding. As he examined the quiet matted gray, he felt, as Letts writes, "the bond of survivors. He was wise, an old soul, a horse whose steady demeanor seemed to cover hidden depths. Man or beast, Harry did not like to see a proud soul held in captivity."
"Harry was a father and chief breadwinner. His life was completely full of responsibilities," Letts says. "This was the 1950s, when people were being encouraged to conform, to put on a gray flannel suit and become organized men. But Harry just kept on dreaming, and he found a horse that seemed equally unbound, a plow horse who dreamed of being a Pegasus."
As a fellow equestrian and patron of second chances, Letts has been exponentially enlivened by the story of this duo.
"It is impossible to spend much time around Harry de Leyer and not be inspired," she says. > "He is almost 84 years old, and he works at a pace that would exhaust people who are a whole generation younger. Harry still teaches riding, cares for a barn full of horses and rides every day. > > He has inspired me to go back to riding after a hiatus when I was busy with family and career."
The message of Harry and Snowman renews passion as well as conflicts that have, since their time, penetrated society.
Letts says that "the story of Snowman inspired [her] to help raise awareness about the plight of unwanted horses during these tough economic times today." Awareness of the fragility of animals is one confronting aspect of Letts' story. By the final page, a curious consideration of an immigrant's rightful opportunity arises, as we relate to a foreign, hard-working man.
Throughout these -consider-ations is the -immediacy of what Letts believes is the blessed -conduit to a better world: "greatness accessible to ordinary people."
Her simple message is that of hope without the sparkly glamour; the message to "never give up, even when the obstacles seem sky high. >Don't give up on a person or an animal because they have a plain exterior, and don't ever give up on your dreams."
"The Eighty-Dollar Champion" is the authentic Cinderella story. Despite the time-battered polarized relationship between fairy tale and reality, the tale of Snowman and his rider, Harry de Leyer, is that of blue-ribboned survivalists.
"They are the greatest kind of champions," Letts says, "the ones who have succeeded by rising above the expectations of others and >have done it >with -dignity."
For more information, call The Country Bookshop at (910) 692-3211.
Kate Smith is a student at Sandhills Community College, who is serving as a newsroom intern at The Pilot.
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