Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Adventure classics -- Island of refuge for the wild ponies

Misty of Chincoteague

by Marguerite Henry


Judging from their ubiquity, animals in stories were stand-ins for humanity long before we first domesticated dogs (or in the view of some animal advocates, since before dogs first domesticated humans). But not until the romantic nineteenth century became aware of children as beings with natures separate from those of adults were animals seen specifically as metaphors for children. And as creatures poised between the unconscious world of nature and the conscious, world of humans, animals became especially metaphors for children on the brink of adulthood.

Marguerite Henry, childless herself, celebrated both children and animals, writing more than fifty books for and about them over her long lifetime. The most beloved of these was her 1947 masterpiece, Misty of Chincoteague.

An epic in miniature, Misty is the story of a boy, a girl, and a very small horse on two very small islands, Assateague and the still smaller Chincoteague, located off the Atlantic coasts of Maryland and Virginia.

At last census, fewer than 3,000 people inhabited Chincoteague Assateague they leave to the wild things, mostly birds and ponies descended, according to tradition, from survivors of wrecked ships. Each summer, the horses are herded across the narrow channel to Chincoteague, some auctioned, some returned to repopulate their home island.

Henry’s book opens with brother and sister Paul and Maureen Beebe working to raise money to buy a famously wild young mare called the Phantom at the next pony penning.  Although the grandparents they live with make a living by raising and reselling ponies, Paul and Maureen long for “a pony of their own, never to be sold. Not for any price.”

Not until Paul joins the horse herders for the first time do they learn that Phantom now has a newly-born foal of her own. Paul tracks the illusive Phantom, rescues the tiny foal who is too weak to swim, and names her Misty. But will the children have enough money from their hard work to buy two ponies and keep Misty and her mother together? Will the wild ponies be able to accept the world of human beings? Or will the children have the empathy and courage to let the ponies choose their own way?

Henry visited Chincoteague in the 1940’s when her editor suggested writing a story about the pony penning. Noted for her research, Henry “sat in the grass-filled dunes of the island of Assateague, letting the warm sand sift through her fingers and the salty sea air blow through her hair,” her friend Susan Foster Ambrose wrote more than fifty years after publication of the book that became a Newbery Honor winner. “She took careful notes as she interviewed the men, women, and children of Chincoteague. Marguerite Henry did not simply study a subject before she wrote about it. She lived it.”

In this quest for realism, Henry temporarily adopted Misty. The pony often traveled with Henry, even riding the hotel elevator at a library convention. In time, the author returned Misty was returned to Chincoteague, where the pony had foals of her own and even played a bit part in the 1961 movie Misty, based on Henry’s book.

Misty died in 1972, aged twenty-six. Henry would survive her equine friend by a quarter century. She was working on her final book when she died in 1997.

Virtually all Henry’s books are available on Amazon, including the nonfiction, A Pictorial Life Story of Misty. And for more about Henry’s life, and the ponies of Chincoteague, I liked the site of the Misty of Chincoteague Foundation,

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues a February of animal adventures with Felix Salten’s original Bambi.)

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