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Bosom Enemies: Losing Our Bearings. By Donna Barr. Bremerton, WA: A Fine Line Press, 2000. 64p. $6.00. ISBN 1-892253-08-9.

Fantasy; surrealism

Adults, teens; language

During World War II, German Leutnant Stephan Egger takes American Sgt. Stewart Harrow prisoner. Stephan "has enough English to be coaxed into a safer frame of mind" than wanting to shoot Stu, but as Stu gratefully chats Stephan up, both are hit by poisoned thorns or darts. They collapse and awaken naked and partially bound--and, to their horror, half-transformed into horses. Their lower halves are horses' rears, and their hands have become stiff and barely usable for anything except "four-footed" locomotion. As Stu cries, "Somebody means to have us on all fours for SERIOUS!" As they gape, they are approached by a small being (a Tudan, we learn) whose head and neck are those of a horse but who is otherwise human-appearing. Infuriated by the Tudan's attempts to lure them over, they chase him out of the pen. Alas, their moment of triumph is short-lived. A rather crazy old half-horse explains to Stephan and Stu where they are (underground) and that they are horses (Turbs, to be precise--not born "horses") and the Tudans are men, and that they will never leave.

Soon more Tudans rope and capture the two unfortunate former humans with the help of another Turb, Blackharrow, a former Russian who enjoys subduing Nazi Turbs. Stephan resists fiercely at every turn, ultimately throwing his rider. Stu comes in to help, and there is a general melee until an officer, the stable-sergeant, mounted on "Snowcat," a female Trac (a "horse" born in this world) calls a halt to the Tudans' efforts, and Snowcat calms the two Turbs down. At least, they leave off physical fighting and start screaming at each other about the definition of "freedom." They are ultimately led away. Stephan is assigned to Captain Kyin, and Troop-Sergeant Alahan takes a liking to Stu.

The rest of the book deals with how Stu ultimately comes to accept his situation, but Stephan has to be broken. Issues such as gelding, hatred of the bit, escaping only to be captured again, the danger of resisting when they could easily be shot and made into glue, and high-class vs. low-class horses are all explored and dealt with with varying degrees of pain and anguish.

Well, no one will ever accuse Donna Barr of pandering to the masses. This is a fascinating work that yet again shows off her mastery of animal-humans, especially horse-humans. (Also see Hader and the Colonel.) Of course, what happens to Stu and Stephan is exactly what happens to wild horses who are captured and broken. It's hard to imagine these things happening to normal horses, let alone the obviously intelligent Tracs and Turbs, but they do. Not that the two former soldiers are constantly abused, but they have bits jammed in their mouths, must eat without using their hands, are deprived of food and water to break them, are spoken to largely in baby talk (the Tudans have some rather peculiar attitudes about their mounts' intelligence, though they generally do talk to them), have the threats of gelding and death hanging over them, and otherwise are treated like slaves or, at best, pets. What seems kindly when directed at a horse (e.g., the gift of an apple) seems condescending when directed at a human. Though Stu points out that the Tudans treat their "horses" like partners rather than animals, Stephan remains unconvinced--and so do we. After all, when Stephan is in distress, no Tudan actually asks him what's wrong--they just assume they know.

The drawings of the "horses" are very disturbing and unnatural--humans shouldn't bend in those ways, their backs shouldn't be so straight, and their arms shouldn't be so long. But of course, as "horses," they have to be shaped that way in the front. Still, it's jarring to look at them, which gives the book a lot of power. Are they men? Are they horses? Something more or less than either?

One small objection I have to this book is that the two soldiers don't spend any time wondering how they became Turbs. Though there are a few Tudans who speak "horse," as well as some Tracs and other Turbs who can speak English, neither Stu nor Stephan ask anyone what's going on. This behavior (or lack thereof) could be explained by mental changes that came with the physical ones, but with no attempt at explanation we are left with speculation. Hopefully, Barr will address this issue in future books.

This offbeat, intriguing book would be suitable for adults and teenagers, though it might be disturbing to some people. But Bosom Enemies does an excellent job of shaking up our preconceptions about many things. And isn't that what good literature is supposed to do?

Buy it directly from Donna Barr!

Copyright 2000, D. Aviva Rothschild


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