Set in the early 19th century, Small Gains is centred on the Garland family, and in particular Clara Garland, age 11 when the story opens, and who has developed into a very independent young woman by the conclusion. In many ways Clara is a modern girl, or at least the girl many modern girls would like to be, and in her Peyton has given her readers someone with whose joys and tribulations they will readily empathise. Clara is the middle daughter in a family of four children. Their farmer father is a widower; his wife died of consumption which also affects Clara’s beautiful older sister Margaret.
Integral to the plot is the intense rivalry between the Garlands and the Grovers, a rich farming family who live in the same village. The focus for the many tensions caused by the Grovers is a number of trotting races between their beautiful Crocus and the Garlands’ less stylish but very combative horses, Tilly and Rattler. But the enmity goes deeper; Nat Grover, son of the ruthless Ebenezer, has impregnated Margaret whose death occurs as she gives birth to his child, and subsequently he toys with Clara, emotionally and sexually.
Small Gains also provides an interesting look at social conditions around two hundred years ago. Clara’s older brother gets involved with an outlaw gang that sabotages the new threshing machines which are seen as a threat to employment and a traditional way of life, and it is also an interesting commentary on the position of women. Small Gains is a good read: pacey, well-plotted with some great characters and plenty to keep horse enthusiasts entertained.