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the island of horses

26 december 2021

Nine years after Misty of Chincoteague, Eilís Dillon published a children's novel about an Atlantic island full of semi-mystical horses descended from stock provided by Spanish shipwrecks, and the travails of a couple of kids who try to bring a very special juvenile horse from the island to their intermediate mainland, to the bemusement of their elders. I'm not saying that Dillon appropriated Marguerite Henry's idea, but the set-up is quite similar.

Dillon proceeds to make something original and subtle of the situation, though. The Island of Horses is a nuanced and consistently intriguing juvenile fiction, teeming with Irish local color but also grown-up within children's-novel parameters, in ways one can scarcely imagine a children's novel being marketed (at least in America), 65 years later.

Narrator Danny MacDonagh is 15, for instance, and his friend Pat Conroy a year older. Heroes in American children's books must be younger nowadays, and have always tended a bit younger (Paul and Maureen are younger in Misty). Danny and Pat don't do anything terribly "adult" along lines that kids are supposed to be sheltered from reading about. But their exploits (sailing to and camping on the title island, building a shelter, bringing a colt home in a small boat not to mention two barrels of eels, outwitting kidnappers, surviving a shipwreck) are more plausibly those of near-grown teens than of the 11- and 12-year-olds who are obligatory in 21st-century children's fiction.

American children's fiction about animals also tends to be about bonding with the animal in question, whether it's "Some Pig" Wilbur or Misty or the Black Stallion. By contrast, Danny and Pat are proud of the colt they schlep home from the Island of Horses, but they have no personal attachment to it. Instead the colt becomes a trading chip in a complex exchange between the Conroys of Inishrone and the Costelloes of the mainland. (In effect, the colt is to be traded for a woman, Barbara Costelloe, who will marry Pat's older brother John.)

It's hard to gauge Eilís Dillon's tone and affective power from 65 years later, and an ocean and more away. The Island of Horses is not condescending toward the island people of the west of Ireland. Dillon's language is well-modulated and avoids stage-Irish effects. She draws sharp characters – villains, eccentrics, fools – but any good fiction does that, and I don't get a sense that the west of Ireland is naturally prolific in oddball characters, in Dillon's reckoning. Dillon was not of the same social class and background as the people she writes about here, but she was an outsider committed to writing about her subject with knowledge and empathy: reminiscent in some ways of and the Anglo-Australian Arthur Upfield or the American Ester Wier – and of course of a tradition of Irish writing that includes John Millington Synge.

Above all The Island of Horses is simply a good story, with an emphasis on action and its characters' strivings to succeed against the odds.

Dillon, Eilís. The Island of Horses. 1956. New York: New York Review Books, c2004. PZ 7 .D5792Is