When I was a little girl, I was like every other child in the world – I wanted a horse. (What is it about horses that gives them an almost universal appeal when we are young?) I devoured every “horsey” book I could find, and a great many of them were written by Marguerite Henry. She was a fairly prolific writer of children’s books throughout the 1940’s and 50’s, many of which were illustrated by Wesley Dennis, whose simple line drawings are absolute perfection. She had a knack of writing about children and animals in a way that was quite relatable, and was unafraid to tackle some darker topics as well. For instance, Brighty of Grand Canyon involves a murder, and Mustang: Wild Spirit of the West looks at the dreadful practice of rounding up wild horses by airplane and driving them to slaughter for dog food. But throughout, her stories are still happy and enjoyable. They are children’s books, so many of them (like Misty) are not necessarily long on plot, but are still delightful stories.
The setting for Misty is Chincoteague, a small island off the Delmarva coast. Between Chincoteague and the ocean is yet another, larger, island – Assateague. While Chincoteague is populated by humans, Assateague has been left to the wild things, including several herds of ponies whose origins are shrouded in mystery.
Paul and Maureen are the main characters of the book. Around the ages of 10-12, they live with their grandparents on Chincoteague. Most of the island’s inhabitants make their living from fishing, but Grandpa Beebe raises and sells ponies. Every year the menfolk from Chincoteague cross the channel and round up as many ponies on Assateague as they can find. They swim the ponies back across the channel and have a festival of sorts known as Pony Penning Day. Many of the younger ponies are sold, while the older ones and some of the young ones are sent back across to Assateague until the next year.
This year, Paul and Maureen are determined to buy a pony of their own, one that won’t be sold like all of Grandpa Beebe’s eventually are. But they don’t want just any pony – they want the Phantom, a young mare known for her wily abilities to escape the roundup. The children work hard to earn money to pay for the Phantom. They know that she will be found this year, because Paul is old enough to ride on the roundup for the first time. Paul does, in fact, find the Phantom – except she isn’t alone. She has a little foal with her, and now Paul and Maureen are determined to own them both.
Henry weaves a simple but ultimately pleasing story. Her descriptions of the island, the roundup, and the interactions of Paul and Maureen are done well. Grandpa and Grandma Beebe are down-to-earth and practical – they guide the children but let them learn on their own. The children work hard for their goals, and hard work is rewarded. Ultimately, they learn lessons about themselves, ponies, and the importance of letting wild things be wild.
Even though Misty – Phantom’s foal – is the title character, she really isn’t the central part of the story. Phantom and the children play a much bigger part in the tale.
Henry loved to write stories that were mostly real. She says at the beginning of her book:
All the incidents in this story are real. They did not happen in just the order they are recorded, but they all happened at one time or another on the little island of Chincoteague.
Her dedication is to a list of characters in her book who are all real people, including the Phantom, Misty, and the leader of the Phantom’s herd, Pied Piper, all of whom were real ponies as well. In real life, Henry purchased Misty as a weanling and owned her for many years before Misty returned to Chincoteague. Misty was at the heart of many fundraisers to encourage children to read, and to give money to preserve wildlife on Assateague.
In my personal real life, I finally got to visit both Chincoteague and Assateague back in 2010 – and it was still a genuine thrill, almost twenty years after reading the book for the first time!
All in all, this reread was not a disappointment. While the story not the type that will get your blood pounding, it is still poignant and engaging, with perfect illustrations.
I own a huge pile of Henry’s books and am hoping to revisit them soon. For now, the three sequels to Misty are in the queue, including Sea Star, which will be part of 20 Books of Summer. Misty is #12 from that challenge: I’m beginning to think that I may be successful!