One of the reasons I was so excited to visit Assateague and Chincoteague Islands for the 97th Pony Swim was my lifelong love of Marguerite Henry’s Misty of Chincoteague. I loved horses as a girl, collecting small statues of them, reading every horse story I could find, and begging my mother to take us to Silver Beech Riding Stable (a rather highbrow name for a slightly decrepit barn) on the outskirts of the Village of Penn Yan. Those rides through the woods were the highlight of my week, of my summer, and I still have fond memories of my favorite ride, a spunky mare called Lady.
As an adult, I was curious to see if Henry’s tale of the wild ponies and how Misty herself came to be a longtime resident of Chincoteague would still ring as true as it had when I was nine. Amazingly, I tracked down my weathered old copy and began to read, gradually reconnecting with the main characters; Paul and Maureen Beebe, the stallion-Pied Piper, Misty’s Mom-Phantom, and Misty herself. Almost five decades later, the more I read, the more excited I got to finally have the chance to see the book come to life in 2022. Henry penned her tale while living at Miss Molly’s Inn, a charming Victorian B&B on Main Street in Chincoteague in the 1940’s. I wondered if (especially after two years of the pandemic) things had changed since those days.
Looking at Misty as an adult writer, I saw it in a different light than I had as a child. The human characters were not what compelled me to daydream about going to those islands. I think that’s because they were (are?) real people and I imagine Henry tried to stay true to them as much as possible. Regardless, I continued to find the horses (who had no way of telling her whether they liked how she portrayed them or not!) and the landscape much more compelling.
What is it that Henry tunes into when writing her books? Ultimately, it’s a strong sense of place that makes Misty of Chincoteague a book that stays in a children’s minds long after they’ve turned the last page of the book and makes them long to visit there someday. When I arrived at the end of July, it was exactly as she’d described it. The heat and humidity, the many varieties of seafood, the roundup, the saltwater cowboys and the watermen, the slack tide and the swim between the islands.
Then the parade down Main Street and the Fireman’s Carnival. When I was talking to the twenty-first century children who’d come to Chincoteague for the very special week, I found them just as determined to win the Neptune foal at the raffle or convince their moms and dads to bid on a colt for them to take home as the kids in Misty were.
It’s obvious that Henry not only lived there, soaking up every bit of ambiance she could when writing the Newbury Award winner, she also had a genuine affinity for the islands. Her writing engages all the senses-you can smell the ocean and the pine forests, feel the intensity of the summer heat on your skin, the electricity of the thunderstorm, and the softness of the horses’ lips on your hand. You hear the noise of the crowd, the whickers of the mares, and the stallion trumpeting. When you finally spot the wild ponies, there’s a visceral reaction to seeing them galloping along the island road manes and tails flying behind. And of course, you have to laugh at Misty’s naughty antics when her mother is getting more attention than she is!
Many children, from toddlers to teens, love certain books because they transport them out of their familiar world into a new one. Planning a trip to where their favorite stories occurred can provide an unforgettable learning experience. What can you teach your children on this type of vacation? It might not be as tangible as a scientific fact or mathematical formula but talking about different scenes and interactions in the book can lead to fantastic conversations about difficult choices, morals, values, and principles, how hard you’re willing to work and what you’re willing to sacrifice to get something you want desperately, the benefits of freedom versus domesticity, and what your kids would change, if anything, about the book if they were to rewrite it after visiting the setting in contemporary times.
These getaways can be a wonderful bonding experience, as well as a lot of fun for people of all ages. It warmed my heart to see so many families, and generations of wild pony lovers, who had come from far and near to make this week a part of their busy lives. I talked to several girls who were just like I was at their age so I guess some things never change! Though I didn’t share this particular literary journey with a child, I did take it with a curious fellow reader. Which proves that you can benefit from teachable travel at any age and stage!
Here’s a few other literary jaunts I that I’d love to take someday based on books that have remained in my heart since childhood.
Anne of Green Gables/Prince Edward Island
Owls in the Family/ Saskatchewan, Canada
How Green was my Valley/Wales
The Monkey Wrench Gang/Utah and Arizona
What are some of your favorite books and how far would you and your family venture to experience them in “real time”?
(Note: Photo credit for several images goes to Tammy Tuttobene.)