Falling for Eli is the memoir of Nancy Shulins, and the story of how she healed the pain of infertility and the loss of her dreams of motherhood through the love of a horse called Eli.
One again in this blog I am moving out of my comfort zone with this book. Normally I find it hard to concentrate on non-fictional memoirs, even those which are interesting (and sadly many are downright dull and poorly written). Also as someone who has zero maternal instincts for the human child (my maternal instincts are expressed only in the care of cats, dogs or horses) I wondered if I would be able to relate to that aspect of the subject matter.
From the first pages I soon realised that both fears were unfounded. The book is far better written than the average memoir and is certainly not dull. The writing flows and is as easy to read and as stylish as good fiction. It has warmth and humour, as well as emotional depth.
And what of the subject matter? The main theme of the book is of course the heart-rending inability of the author to fulfil her dream of motherhood. However you don’t have to have the same problem, or indeed even to be female to understand and empathise with this situation. Anyone who has had their dreams shattered in some way, or feels themselves set apart from the rest of humanity because they cannot do the same things as ‘normal’ people – be it through inability to have children, poverty, ill health or whatever – will find strength and comfort in this book. It is so easy to feel that you are alone and everyone else is having a better life than you. Nancy Shulin – through her incredibly brave honesty – gives the reader assurance that this is not the case. And she also shows how pain can be healed and life enriched once more by taking a different direction in life. The fact that I have read many comments about the book from a diverse range of people who seem to feel the book has helped them with their own various problems, seems to emphasise the universal nature of this book’s message.
Nancy Shulins heals her own pain through the love of a horse called Eli. There are many insensitive jokes made about women using animals as child-substitutes, but to 'animal people' this is a normal and indeed healthy practice. We are not talking about those females who dress up their little dogs in baby clothes and push them around in prams or carry them in handbags. In this instance the animals are substitutes for dolls (or even worse fashion accessories) rather than children and those sort of women have not really grown up. However I think that there is a very deep need in most mature females to nurture and protect something. The majority of women express this primarily with children. But then there are those whose nurturing instincts are – as in the case of the author - thwarted, and so turn to animals instead. Some of us actually prefer the animals themselves in the first place. But for most females there seems to be a part of us which is unfulfilled unless we are caring for and nurturing a living creature. As we bond with our animals we soon realise that they are not actually inferior substitutes for children. They become as important to us as if they were our own flesh and blood. Falling For Eli both highlights and celebrates this bond and should be required reading for anyone who doesn’t understand an animal lover’s closeness to their beloved horse, cat or dog: the sort of person who sees animals as possessions which can easily be replaced rather than living breathing beings. Perhaps this book could even enlighten such a reader as to the real nature of the bond between humans and animals.
But this is not just a book about the mothering instinct and its expression in the care of an animal. It is also a fascinating story of what it’s like to get the ‘horse bug.’ There is a rather crude myth (probably sniggered at by the same sort of people who laugh at women’s maternal affection for animals) which says that pre-pubescent and teenage girls use horses primarily as a male substitute and then lose interest when they find a real man. What a load of nonsense! Although she rode as a child, the author did not plunge wholly into the world of horses until an adult, giving lie to the fact that this ‘bug’ is the sole province of teenage girls. It can strike at any age. And as the book also shows, if a horse is any substitute at all, it is as a substitute for a child not a man. (Maybe a man could be a – rather poor - substitute for a horse on the other hand!) Of course the reader soon realises that Eli is far more than a mere substitute. He becomes a being in his own right, who takes over the author’s life in so many ways. The author describes perfectly what it is like to own a horse, not just the mechanics, but the emotional ups and downs and the effect it can have on the whole of your life. For anyone who wonders just what owning a horse entails or what the world of the horse-lover is like, this book will tell them all they need to know. For those of us who have owned or loved horses or spent any time in the horsy world, the book gives us the affirmation that being ‘horse-mad’ is not suffering from some strange disease (as many like to tell us!) but is actually a very special privilege.
For me however the real strength of the book is that it highlights the amazing healing power of the horse. In my other incarnation as a reader and collector of children’s pony books, I have read thousands of stories in which a horse changes the heroine’s life forever. Perhaps it turns her into a better person, maybe it heals a hurt inside. Reading this book makes you realise this does not only happen in fiction. Real horses also have the power to heal us and even restore our faith in life.