Book Review: When the Tornado Comes by Rita Zoey Chin

Tuesday, December 23, 2014
Posted by Holly Jacobson


Many compelling memoirs are fashioned on the theme of horses mutually saving or healing individuals on physical, emotional, spiritual levels. The depth of the relationship and revelation can be profound. Such is the power of the horse that draws us like a magnet and speaks to our souls. Rita Zoey Chin had always been drawn to sight of horses but as young runaway fleeing violence at home and spending years on the streets, she never imagined ever touching a real horse, much less one day acquiring a dressage partner and soulmate. Her true story draws its power from her unvarnished vantage point and the lyrical force of her language that glints with sparkling detail and glimpses of the oft unnoticed richness in the world. At age 11, Chin says, she felt the power of leaving, a liberating choice towards finding beauty in the world. Determined, bright and resilient, Chin possessed a poetic soul that served as her expressive outlet.

“I always wrote on paper scraps, the bottom of my shoe,” and says she needs very little to survive day to day. A simple gift of a Hershey bar a nurse gives her at an institution she lives at for a time is enough to keep her cheerful.

Although there are harrowing moments and scenes depicted in the story, the positive force of Chin’s curiosity and strong will, her inner compass, carries her forward. She pursues college, navigating GREs, admissions, scholarships and eventually teaching.

She comes into her own as an award winning poet, she marries a doctor and settles into home life in a picturesque New England town.

When she spies a woman riding outside a barn she is driving past, Chin says she was struck by the confidence that the rider’s posture evoked and she unwittingly, stumbles into dressage.

For a woman who had heard hoofbeats in her head forever, Chin encountered the “angst at the gulf of knowing what I don’t know” as a newcomer. The mystery of bridles alone and the incredibly steep learning curve of horse behavior, riding etiquette, all the nuances of safety, health, training, horse care gave this reader great empathy towards anyone tackling horse involvement as an adult. For Chin, riding is the simpler part and where she feels thrillingly at ease.

On the surface, Chin’s life appears near perfect but then hidden damage erupts in the form of disabling panic attacks, complicated by her physician husband keeping his distance from any sense of turmoil. At first, her new horse, a handsome chestnut gelding named Claret, provides solace but when Claret starts to become spooky and fearful, Chin faces a dilemma. When her trainer describes her horse as a bad boyfriend she needs to dump and move on, Chin instead sees a parallel to her own panic attacks. She relates to Claret’s innate instinct to flight.

Author Rita Zoey Chin and Claret. Credit: C.E. Courtney
Author Rita Zoey Chin and Claret. Credit: C.E. Courtney

As a novice owner, navigating horse trainers and barn situations that will work for your sensitive horse is no small feat.

Many amateur riders discover and tackle the subject of fear with horses. Although Chin’s panic attacks take hold in daily activities, driving on highways, standing in grocery checkout lines, showering, going up stairs, paralyzing her to the point of being unable to cross the threshold of her front door, her exploration of fear resonates. “No one talks about fears, real fear, never mind imagined ones,” she says. “It’s like runaways, unseen, ignored, invisible.”

She says she’s been surprised at her book signings how many people admit to dealing with panic anxiety or know people who suffer curtailed lives.

This book is a look into a unique life that touches on universal fears and hopes, emotions. Chin shares an intimate view of her marriage, and her past. It’s not surprising that she’s drawn to horses. Nature, beauty and soft noses are her answers. The horse’s strength, power, and fragility can often act as a mirror but here, it’s more like a prism, vibrant with appreciation. I know what I’m giving for gifts this year.