When we were kids, my sister, Rachel, was the horse lover. I suspect she read every book written by Marguerite Henry that our local public library had. I wasn’t into horses, and I never read any of them, although I do remember my sixth grade teacher reading Brighty of the Grand Canyon aloud to the whole class. But of course, I heard about Misty of Chincoteague.
This year, a friend chose the small island of Chincoteague, Virginia for a vacation and invited my partner and me to join her. When we arrived, I was in the middle of reading the adult novel, Americanah, by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, set in Lagos, Nsukka, and various east coast U.S. cities. I was fascinated by it and deeply involved, but it wasn’t the right book for Chincoteague. I remembered another journey to New Mexico, when the novel I had on the train seemed irrelevant after I passed Chicago. I also remembered times when my own setting seemed to match up perfectly to the sense of place in the book I was reading.
Luckily, the vacation house had a bookshelf, well stocked with a surprisingly good selection of books for both adults and children. I quickly found Misty of Chincoteague. There were no black characters in this book (unless you count horses), but I loved immersing myself in the adventures of the two children, Paul and Maureen (a strong, positive female character despite the constraints of the 1940s setting), in their attempts to capture, purchase, tame and keep a wild pony. Under the spell of the illustrator, Wesley Dennis, I even had to change my mind about horses as characters in books.
Clearly, Misty was Chincoteague’s most celebrated resident. It was pretty amazing to see her influence on the whole town, and I marveled at the ability of one author, with one children’s book (although she went on to write many more), to make this seven mile island famous. The visitors’ center gave me a map with all the celebrated places marked that related to Misty—where she swam ashore with the other wild ponies from Assateague Island, the location of the ranch where she lived, the statue of her near the library, and where to find her hoofprints in the sidewalk in front of the theater on Main Street. The inside walls of the theater were even decorated with images of ponies, and a visit to the island’s thrift shop revealed second hand saddles for sale.
Of course, I checked out the famous places, halting only at visiting the museum, where Misty and her descendant, Stormy, have been taxidermized for posterity. I didn’t want to see the display; for me the characters from the book were new and young, and the town had brought them tolife. (My horse-loving sister had been to the island years before, and was able to see the real Misty while she was still living.) Before I left, I did visit the town’s independent bookstore, Sundial Books. I had replaced the paperback copy of Misty of Chincoteague on the vacation house shelf, so I had to pick up a copy to take home.