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misty of chincoteague

10 june 2021

My grandparents were fascinated by the feral ponies of Assateague and Chincoteague Islands off the Delmarva peninsula. They weren't otherwise horse people or much interested in animals domestic or wild, but they always kept pamphlets and calendars around featuring the ponies swimming between the islands. I grew up thinking that there was something deeply significant and quintessentially American about these creatures … though it took me till the age of 62 to actually read Marguerite Henry's children's classic Misty of Chincoteague.

You will be happy to hear that no harm comes to Misty or any of her equine relatives in the course of Henry's novel. Old Yeller, this ain't. There are brief, effective moments of suspense or uncertainty, but they are dispelled as soon as they arise. Misty of Chincoteague is a book for fairly young children, copiously illustrated by Wesley Dennis: the reading level is perhaps more advanced than we'd see in a book with so many pictures today, but the story is eminently readable to early-elementary kids.

Protagonists Paul and Maureen, not much older than those readers, have grown up in the horse culture of Chincoteague. Their grandfather makes a living selling surplus ponies from the island herds to horse-fanciers. The kids long for a pony they can keep and make a pet of. Like E.B. White's slightly later Charlotte's Web, Misty presents children who have grown up with the realities of livestock but long for more sentimental and genteel attachments to animals. There's less potential danger to Misty than to Wilbur the pig. As soon as Grandpa hears of the kids' plan, he's eager to help out.

By the way, "Papa and Mama are in China" (33) and nobody is really interested in why. I reckon they must be missionaries. Maybe the book is set quite a bit earlier than 1947, or maybe Papa and Mama are caught up in some hideous revolutionary complication and aren't expected back soon.

Paul and Maureen have their eye on the legendary Phantom, the elusive mare who never gets swept into the annual roundup. It is Paul's first year to participate and he wants to make a big splash by bringing home the famous mare. He gets more than he bargains for. He can catch Phantom because this year, she is inseparable from a new foal. The young filly looks like a puff of mist; Paul names her on the spot and she enters American popular culture to stay.

Henry is good at crafting minor problems, as I said, but quickly getting the kids and their ponies out of them. They nearly lose Misty between the islands, but Paul swims to her rescue. They nearly lose Phantom and Misty to an out-of-town buyer, but he is quickly placated and bought off. Misty of Chincoteague is partly a sport novel – Phantom races against the undefeated Black Comet – but she quickly takes the lead and is declared winner before the reader quite settles into the horse-race narrative.

Phantom eventually goes back to Assateague. "Ain't no human being going to take her liberty away from her," Grandpa explains (53), because a marking on her side vaguely resembles a map of the United States. Phantom and Misty, he argues, are more autochthonous than Indians: "The real first families of Virginia was the ponies!" he declares (41) though as descendants of shipwrecked Spanish colonial imports, they must have arrived millennia after Native Americans first did. But origin legends, Grandpa elaborates – the guy is a regular ideologue – "go deep down and bring up the heart of a story" (40), even if they involve a certain amount of creative spin. He who controls the ponies controls the land and the inland waters and the whole of America, and the heck with the facts of priority.

And Misty? It can't be a spoiler that she stays on and becomes a beloved companion animal – in Chincoteague, of course; the title isn't "Misty of Some Hunt Country Stable in New Jersey." It occurs to me that Misty is likely to live long into Paul and Maureen's adulthood. It also occurs to me that there are a bunch of sequels that deal with this contingency. Back to the books …

Henry, Marguerite. Misty of Chincoteague. Illustrated by Wesley Dennis. 1947. New York: Aladdin [Simon & Schuster], 2006. PZ 10.3 H43Mg