Misty of Chincoteague (1947)

Misty  There is a herd of semi-feral horses on the island of Assateague, off the coast of Virginia and Maryland. Once a year, on Pony Penning Day, the islanders of neighboring Chincoteague drive the horses across the channel. They auction off the foals and some of the adults, after which the remainder of the herd is released back to Assateague.

Misty of Chincoteague was written by Horse Book Person Marguerite Henry, who was already known for Justin Morgan had a Horse and went on to write King of the WindBrighty of the Grand Canyon, and more Chincoteague books. She lived in Wisconsin, but she visited Chincoteague to prep for this book.

This book is for a fairly young audience, both in terms of the writing and the story. Paul and Maureen are desperate to buy the legendary Phantom, a mare who has eluded capture the past two years. They save up money, and Paul gets to ride with the salt-water cowboys to bring the horses across. But Phantom has a foal! They must buy both! But someone else buys the foal! But they get the foal back!

Now they have both Phantom and Misty. Misty takes to human society easily, but Phantom is half-wild and only learns to be ridden with very slow careful training. Then, this being a horse book, there is a HORSE RACE! Where the wild proud horse that could never be ridden is ridden by the child who has no horseracing experience, and WINS! Because, as the children knew all along, this is the special-est horse ever.

Then Phantom returns to Assateague, where her wild heart belongs. The children lose Phantom, but get to keep Misty.

It should be noted that the gender politics are just terrible, even for 1947. Paul does everything, from rounding up the Phantom and getting her and Misty across the channel safely, to riding her in the race (they pull a wishbone for it, but you know Maureen was never going to win), to making the decision to release Phantom without consulting Maureen. Throughout, Maureen is his meek and devoted helper.

Maguerite Henry also gets her facts wrong about wild horses — not just exaggerating but romanticizing the idea of a harem controlled by a dominant stallion. Wild horses (really, feral horses), live in a herd that is broken up into bands, each band consisting of a dominant mare, several other mares, and their young. There is usually a stallion hanging out with them, though sometimes two or three or more. The stallion only stays with the band for a year or two before moving on.

Another interesting point to note is that the island of Assagteague is fenced right across at the Virginia/Maryland border. On the Virginia side the horses are only semi-feral, getting rounded up once a year so it’s hardly a surprise, and even getting regular vet checkups. On the Maryland side, they are left wild, the only interference being horsie contraception so the population doesn’t get out of control. (Although they do wander around the campgrounds, so maybe not all that wild.)

Horse Books! National Velvet

National VelvetWell this was a surprise.

National Velvet is not a children’s book.

I’m looking into horse books, of which I remember there being a vast number in our school library, and the first surprise was how much of the output was by a few authors. When you count books by Marguerite Henry (Misty of Chincoteague), Walter Farley (The Black Stallion), Mary O’Hara (My Friend Flicka), and — for those in the Antipodes — Elyne Mitchell (The Silver Brumby), you’ve got the bulk of the classic horse books. (I may be missing a few series’ from England that didn’t cross over.)

I decided to start more or less at the beginning (excluding Black Beauty which is from the 19th century and is basically Down and Out in Paris and London for horses). National Velvet is pretty far back, published in 1935.

From the first page it was obviously not a children’s book. Nothing inappropriate, just not at all geared to children and their interests and aesthetics. It is an unsparing portrait of a rural working-class English family. The father is a butcher with a slaughterhouse sharing a wall with the family sitting-room. The hired hand sleeps in former horse stall with a hole in the middle of the floor. The toddler of the family is obsessed with the idea of killing things.

Why, then, did some kids devour this book? Obviously, because it was A BOOK ABOUT HORSES. That was enough for a certain type of child to plough through the descriptions of scenery and weather, the complicated metaphors, the leaps of inference required, and the obscure regional phrases.

Less easy to explain is the choice of publishers and librarians and teachers to promote this as a children’s book. A sweet children’s book. I mean, check out these covers!

(The second book says “The Classic Story of a Girl and her Horse.” The third one says “Charming Classics” and comes with a necklace.)

Well, publishers were obviously cashing in on the movie, but as for librarians and teachers, I can only guess that they’d heard of the movie and never read the book.

Let me be clear, I think it’s fantastic when a passion for something like horses leads a child to voluntarily try out adult fiction. What I object to is the deceptive packaging, and the adult obsession with getting kids to read “classics” because it must be good for them, regardless of the actual content. (Honestly, why do people believe there’s anything to be gained by reading Robinson Crusoe, unless one is a scholar of the history of the novel?)

It’s too bad that this book has been overwhelmed by it’s movie reputation, because it’s a compelling read, and should be met on its own terms. The book is really about Velvet’s character and how she reacts to fame, coming out the other side unscathed because all she really cared about was the horse.