Marguerite Henry wrote literally dozens of children’s books, mostly about horses. She’s perhaps best known for Misty of Chincoteague, but Justin Morgan Had a Horse and King of the Wind are right up there, judging by the number of libraries in Michigan which have them still, sixty plus years after their publication. What can I say? kids have loved horses since the first hominid picked up a lump of charcoal in France and started doodling on cave walls.
I have to confess, though, that as an adult, I kind of prefer three of her later books, written about horses (and their people) which were still alive, at least at the time of the books’ publication2: Born to Trot, about Standardbreds and harness racing, Gaudenzia, about the Palio held in Siena, and Mustang, about hunting feral horses in Nevada. Something about being able to interview the people involved gives a bit of extra depth to the books for me now; these are the three I still actually read (as opposed to just touching the spine of King of the Wind and automatically recalling the story). I may be biased toward Born to Trot because I prefer harness racing to flat racing, but then Henry does, I think, write a better story when she’s concentrating on just the problems Gib White went through, specifically the decision to let his father drive the mare Rosalind, something he’d been dreaming of while stuck in hospital for years3. Gaudenzia is a bit stereotypical in its description of Italian peasant life, and their dialogue is stilted to the point of resembling something Chico Marx might have said–for heaven’s sake let them speak conventional English! the Italian-ness of the book could come through in the description as the exotic climes did in King of the Wind. Mustang I like for Henry’s description of a very tomboyish girl debilitated by polio who struggles to recover her outdoorsiness even as the world changes around her and she grows up; the fight to protect mustangs is a trifle too sweeping a tale to allow for the personalization and intimacy found in Born to Trot but worth preserving anyway.
While many of her books are based on real horses, they are heavily fictionalized1; for example, Stormy, Misty’s Foal describes events which took place sixteen years after Misty of Chincoteague, yet Paul and Maureen are portrayed as children in both; as it happens, Paul and the grandparents had died prior to the events of the later book. From a literary standpoint, this does make perfect sense to me–she is aiming for the same age group as with “Misty”, so it makes sense to keep the characters who were children at the time of the events in the first book children in the second book–but learning that does change how I feel about Stormy, Misty’s Foal. That said, they’re well written enough to be worth reading today, much as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “biographies” are4 are; the writing style of both authors is a bit dated today, however.
What to read next? Well, as I mentioned above, horse stories abound; merely finding kids fiction about horses isn’t hard. For kids in search of books a bit more advanced than Henry’s, I’d say try Mary O’Hara’s trilogy, My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead and Green Grass of Wyoming; the protagonist grows from eleven to sixteen as the books progress, but they’re written at a much more difficult level than Henry’s style–I’m almost thinking she intended them for older readers. For kids just after a rattling good adventure that doesn’t require much thought, there are the early Black Stallion books, by Walter Farley; they’re written more simply but aren’t ooey gooey in the least, as so many horse books are5.
As far as individual books go, the two I remember thirty years on are Peter Cohen’s Morena and Shirley Rousseau Murphy’s White Ghost Summer. White Ghost Summer is a bit dreamier and “girlier”, about a horse crazy girl who discovers a young man living on his own in a nearby park with his four horses, while Morena is about a boy scout accidentally left behind when his scout troop comes home early ahead of a blizzard; he finds the titular mare and rides her as she heads back to her warm safe barn. Again, I’m not promising that others are going to like them, but the writing style is at least from the same period, if that’s what you like about the books.
1the books about historical figures much more so, obviously, like the Godolphin Arabian and the Morgan Horse
2remember, these were written 40-50 years ago…
3Henry doesn’t mention why Gib’s hospitalized; tuberculosis, perhaps? the book takes place in the late forties, not too long after Betty MacDonald’s The Plague and I.
4yeah, sorry; these are basically correct, but Laura stretched the truth in more than a few places to make a readable book.
5a word to the wise, authors: your readership may be predominantly girls but not only do boys like horsies too, not all girls like saccharine pastel beribboned story styles…