Wild Horse Annie Review

We all love David and Goliath stories. Velma Johnston slew two Goliaths - at least; the cattlemen of Nevada who conspired with the United States Bureau of Land Management to stop her, and a virulent polio virus contracted long before humane treatments were discovered. These 'Goliaths' are accustomed to having their way. Neither had met Velma Johnston before.

Before Velma Johnston returned home from Children’s Hospital in the spring of 1924, her mother Trudy removed all the mirrors in the house so her daughter would not be able to view her own image. For approximately half a year, twelve year old Velma had been imprisoned in a body cast from the top of her head down to her hips. Doctors were shocked at what they saw when the cast was removed. “Of this period, Velma wrote, ‘I remember mostly the hurting, and how I was never able to play with the other kids… there was always the pain (and) the adults who discussed my ‘pitiful’ condition and wondered what on earth would ever become of me.’”

In 1924 the polio virus and methods of treatment were equally cruel. The only pain remedy was aspirin. The only way to combat the virulent infection’s assault on Velma’s spine was a rock hard body cast that savaged her facial features as it fought to keep her spine straight. In the hospital Velma had learned not to cry. Throughout her life she used this same raw determination to convert the skeptics all around her. And it took courage. Minute by minute, day by day Velma Johnston endured painful attacks from within her body and from without, as people she encountered could not contain their shock at her appearance. There was no reason, in spring of 1924, for anyone in Velma’s family to expect Velma Johnston would in time, become an inspiration to thousands of children across the land, a pioneering animal rights activist and a true Western hero.

Velma would not be restrained. In this way she was like the wild mustangs of Nevada. She would buck anyone and any group naïve enough stand in the way of her purpose. It was a time when ladies were not taken seriously. But Velma had intimate knowledge of pain and suffering and though she would endure her personal agony in silence, she would not be silenced until her plea to end the cruel round ups of wild mustangs was heard and acted upon. By 1959, Velma was known around Nevada and in Washington DC as Wild Horse Annie, That same year Congress passed the first law giving wild mustangs a fighting chance at survival.

In their rigorously researched biography, Canadian writers, David Cruise and Allison Griffiths have drawn upon Velma’s voluminous letters to friends and supporters to bring Velma’s courageous battle to life. But this is like saying the Grand Canyon is big. The sub story and the soul of the book are about Velma’s grittiness and her refusal to be turned back. Velma was selfless. She worked full time as an executive secretary throughout her lifelong struggle with pain and against the power ranchers of Nevada. She was the main bread winner as Charlie's health, as well deteriorated. Evenings and weekends were devoted to letter writing. One by one, ever so slowly in the beginning, she recruits others who believed wild mustangs have rights too. In between, she found time to entertain, hosting lavish themed parties at the ranch she shared with Charlie. Well into the morning hours they would drink and laugh and gather around the piano. Velma loved people ‘almost’ as much as she loved horses and she loved life more than anything. Velma Johnston deserves a place of honor in American history. We are all indebted to Canadian writers David Cruise and Alison Griffiths for 'unearthing' her story after all these years. It does seem timely in an age when there are so few heroes to look up to and admire. Perhaps the book and the talked of movie will re-ignite our passion and our belief that all living things have rights and one person can make a difference.

By Mercedes (mercedes1947@gmail.com)



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