Most people think you can’t learn much from popular fiction. I disagree. For one thing, so many of the “classics” people revere were popular tales in their day and for stories to sell, they must have an emotional appeal. Either story is sensational, in the titillation sense, or it resounds with the reader. Since the thriller novels of Dick Francis weren’t exceptionally sexy or gory, there was something besides the entertainment of the stories that kept readers coming back. One of the continuing themes in his stories was coming to terms with loss and because he wrote about this well, readers kept returning. It was a subject Dick Francis could speak on with authority.
Francis had success as a jockey, although he lost his fair share of races, including the failure of Devon Loch in the home stretch of the Grand National. To win so many races and ride for the royal family and then lose that race for those owners because your horse falls in the home stretch must be devastating. Not long afterwards, Francis retired from racing, still a young man but unable to pursue the career he loved because of one too many injuries. These experiences became grist for his writing but Francis gave his hero, Sid Halley, losses that were worse.
In Odds Against, Sid starts at the bottom of trying to return to life. As a champion jockey, he had learned to tolerate pain, failure and deprivation but devotion to his profession has cost him his marriage. Then a racing accident crippled his left hand, leaving him without a career or the identity he created with riding. Sid alternates between the self-pity and lethargy of deep depression until a crook’s misfire and his former father-in-law remind him there are still ideals and matters worth fighting for. Sid has to learn the hard way that while every loss must be mourned, clinging to the remains of a shattered life is a recipe for ruin. Halley’s gradual return to the world is a harrowing journey on every level and he encounters more devastation but after learning the lessons only time and experience can bring: that catastrophe can be survived, that regret serves no one and that even a disaster can be unexpectedly liberating.
Odds Against was written in the mid 1960’s and a few references to the period date it a bit but the message is universal: loss is a part of life and how we face up to it defines a large bit of our character. We can withdraw and mourn what we cannot regain or we can move forward toward survival. It won’t be an easy trip but ease seldom creates success. And surviving can be a success in itself, when you ride Odds Against.