[Originally posted April 1, 2006]
I’ve just recently finished reading The Hunt Ball by Rita Mae Brown. Some of you probably know her as a writer of mysteries that feature her cat, Sneaky Pie Brown. Others, probably a bit older, may remember her as a writer of lesbian feminist comedy from the 1970s. Brown has been very prolific in the intervening years, and writes from various viewpoints and angles, with more than one set of characters. Almost all of her works have a Southern setting and feature mid-South denizens of one sort or another, though. I can definitely recommend the hilarious Six of One and the dark, disturbing Southern Discomfort from among her earlier work. High Hearts is another excellent novel, a historical tale set during the War Between the States (I’ll use the preferred Southern appellation for that conflict here.)
The Hunt Ball is a little different from most of these, though. The author is in fact a fox hunter, in the Virginia style (I hasten to point out that Virginia fox hunts always let the fox get away to run again another day…) and a Master of Hounds herself. The book relates the entanglement of Custis Hall, a posh girls’ secondary school occupying lands once owned by Martha Washington’s family, with the Jefferson Hunt, a fox hunting club that holds an annual winter hunt week and ball on the school grounds. Members of the hunt are also on the school’s board of trustees and faculty, and many of the students are deeply involved in equestrian activities and fox hunting.
The story is a school murder mystery worthy of Dorothy Sayers, but told with a Southern accent rather than the upper crust British note of Lord Peter. The mystery is a good one, the human characters are interesting, and the settings are intriguing. But why do I mention it here?
Brown has allowed the animals in the hunt to speak. The foxes, the hounds, even the occasional horse carry on conversations among themselves about the proceedings. They understand what the humans are saying, even though the humans don’t seem to understand them. They are alternately amused and puzzled by human behavior and limitations. Most of the hounds are friendly with the foxes, and make a point of not hurting them or trying to protect them from the few who would, out of excessive ardor, do them harm.
Two different scenes among the hounds are quite funny, as they discuss the reasons that humans don’t eat each other. They kill each other by the thousands, but don’t eat the spoils? What a waste. The horses are mostly concerned with taking care of their riders. After all, if the rider comes off, they have to stop and miss the fun of the chase.
The foxes are the smartest of the lot, of course. You’ll have to meet Target, Inky, Aunt Nettie, and the rest as they swap dens and lead the hounds on a merry run or two, demonstrating all the tricks foxes are rightly famous for.
I definitely recommend this book both for the well-plotted story line and for the furry subplot.
Rita Mae Brown
The Hunt Ball
Ballantine Books, 2005, 336 pages, hardcover $24.95
Recorded Books, 2005, 9 CDs $29.99
Downloadable formats also available for both text and audio.
Should be available through your local library, as well.