It wasn’t just gold bullion and priceless art that the Nazis stole during World War II. Prince of Ponies, the seventh book in Stacy Gregg’s stand-alone series, is based on the true story of the Third Reich’s theft of Europe’s greatest horses in their attempt to breed an equine ‘master race’.
Written as a dual narrative, the book moves seamlessly between two eras. Mira, a Syrian refuge in modern day Berlin, has big dreams of becoming a champion show jumper, while in Poland and Berlin in 1939 another young girl, Zofia, is risking everything to save the horse that she loves - even if it means facing Hitler himself.
Gregg undertook her usual rigorous research for this story, travelling to Berlin, and specifically the Grunewald forest on the outskirts of the city, where Zofia and Mira's stories collide. While researching the book, Gregg also spent time in the Sonnenallee, the Arab district where the young Mira arrives as a refugee with her family after leaving Syria, and in the gentrified suburb of Roseneck near the Grunewald forest where Mira’s family establish a new life.
Gregg masterfully weaves the real-life events of World War II into Zofia and Mira's stories. During the war, Hitler appointed his ‘Master of Horses’, Gustav Rau, to undertake a systematic seizure of the best stallions and mares – Lipizzaners, Polish Arabians and French Warmbloods. Kept at secret stud farms, their offspring branded with the Reich’s mark – an H with a dagger through it – these horses were intended to become the ultimate German warhorses.
But as the Russians closed in on the stud farms the risk of losing the horses to the Red Army – who were starving and would think nothing of eating them – was very real. Many of the horses, including 200 of the Vienna Riding School’s famous Lipizzaners, were rescued at the 11th hour with the aid of horse-loving American General Patton. However, it wasn’t just Lipizzaners who were taken. The Polish Stud Farm, Janow Podlaski, is the scene for much of Zofia’s story, and the events that unfold there are based on the Nazi occupation of the stud farm that took place after Germany annexed Poland.
Gregg is a wonderful story-teller. The story is a real page turner, and despite the dual narratives, is written in a way that makes it very easy to follow. Both main characters are charming and flawed, and their stories mirror each other perfectly.
It is clear Gregg loves horses, with each crafted and described in rich detail. However, this is a book that even those who aren't that fond of horses will enjoy.
With a strong foundation of history, Gregg layers horses, friendship, and belonging into the story as well.
A fascinating story, expertly crafted by one of New Zealand's best authors, Prince of Ponies is more than 'just another' horse story.
Reviewer: Rebekah Fraser
HarperCollins, RRP $25.