Book Review: The Secret Horses of Briar Hill, Megan Shepherd (2016)

October 12th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

“But there must be more out there. There must be brighter things.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

When the princess had this place built, did she imagine that one day children would die here, crying so loud you could hear it even over a screaming kettle? Did she think, while she threw open the doors and let music pour onto the back lawn, that one day a black winged horse would circle around and around the roof, tirelessly, always on the hunt?

I eye him sideways. He doesn’t look like the type to fatten children for witches, but who does?

Young Emmaline is one of twenty-odd patients at Briar Hill hospital in Shropshire, a sort of emergency quarantine hospital for children suffering from tuberculosis – or “stillwaters,” as Em calls it. Their only companions are Sisters Constance and Mary Grace, who run the show; Thomas, the one-armed caretaker; Dr. Turner, who visits once a week to dispense medication; and the many animals who live on the estate: Bog the dog, the sheep and chickens – and the magical winged horses who live in the mirrors.

Emmaline is the only one who can see those last, of course. Mostly the horses ignore her and go about their business on the other side of the mirror. That is, until one winter day when she finds a winged horse in the sundial garden, injured and stranded. The mystery deepens when Emmaline begins receiving letters from the Horse Lord imploring her to keep Foxfire safe. She is being pursued by the Black Horse, who hunts by moonlight and has but one weakness: color. Emmaline must surround Foxfire with all the colors of the rainbow. But where can she find color – vibrant, lively colors – in her dreary world, ravaged by sickness and war?

Middle grade novels aren’t my usual fare, but between the winged horses gazing out from the mirrors and the World War II backdrop, I just couldn’t resist. The Secret Horses of Briar Hill is an enchanting story about love and loss; trauma and grief; and finding hope in impossible places. The juxtaposition of Emmaline’s two worlds –

the magic of the winged horses and their mirror world, in which Em is called upon to be a hero; and the horrors of war and illness – from bombs and undersized caskets, to more mundane scares, like food rationing and yellow tickets affixed to your bedroom door – which Emmaline is powerless to stop –

makes for a compelling and heartrending read. Though the material is rather heavy, Shepherd approaches it with compassion, and in a rather indirect, even roundabout way. Nowhere is this more evident than in Emmaline’s memories of the fire that consumed her family’s bakery and landed her in the hospital the first time around. I won’t say more because spoilers, but The Secret Horses of Briar Hill can serve as a gentle introduction to this period in history for younger readers.

While much of the tale is, frankly, depressing as all heck, there are moments of humor and levity too. I especially loved when Mr. Mason, a neighboring farmer, popped in unexpectedly bearing a Christmas tree for the kids – much to Sister Constance’s consternation:

“We’ve never had a tree before,” Peter says. He and Jack have been here the longest now, and have seen two Christmases at the hospital. “Sister Constance says Christmas is about Christ’s birth, not Saint Nicholas.” […]

“And best set out cookies for Saint Nick,” he says with a wink. Sister Constance’s mouth goes grim.

I also love that Shepherd keeps the ending ambiguous, letting each reader decide for herself whether Foxfire is a figment of Anna’s imagination; a “regular” horse or mule or deer, left injured and untreated by the war; Bog, transformed through Thomas’s letters; or an honest-to-goodness Pegasus in what’s really a fantasy novel. Maybe Emmaline is having a fever dream; perhaps she is nearing the end. Or maybe she really is healed and a hero.

Of course my boring, literal, adult brain kept scanning the text for clues, formulating and revising theories, which did pull me out of the story a little. Younger readers might find it a bit easier to get lost in the tale, and I envy them for it. I know I would have loved this book as a ten-year-old; perhaps it would have found a home on my bookshelf, right between my dog-eared copies The Last Unicorn and Charlotte’s Web.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: All of the twenty-odd children at Briar Hill hospital have “stillwaters” (tuberculosis); it’s a sort of quarantine hospital run by the Sisters of Mercy. Two nuns, Sisters Constance and Mary Grace, serve as nurses/schoolteachers/guardians for the sick kids; a doctor comes by to dispense medication once a week. Some of the children are orphans, while others have families waiting for them on the outside. During the course of the book, we watch as one patient – sixteen-year-old Anna, the hospital’s oldest patient – succumbs to her illness.

Thomas the caretaker was born missing an arm; his disability disqualified him from military service. His father is a decorated war hero – he served in WWI and, at the story’s outset, is fighting in WWII – and he was so ashamed of Thomas’s disability that he disowned the boy. (“He wasn’t exactly acknowledged by his father.”) The father ended up dying in WWII. Many of the kids at Briar Hill are scared of Thomas, and tell some rather nasty stories about him (he kidnaps children to feed to a cannibal or a witch or a cannibal witch).

Dr. Turner lost his daughter and wife in a bombing; he suffers from PTSD. Similarly, Emmaline lost her mother and sister Marjorie in the Nottingham blitz. Their bakery/home caught fire, and Em’s family was trapped inside. She was unable to save them and, in order for her mind to cope with the tragedy, she imagines that the sounds they made trying to escape were actually those of the family’s draft horses, locked in their stalls. (The family didn’t own horses.) Em’s father died that same week, in the siege of Tobruk.

One of the children, a boy named Arthur, is so traumatized that he never speaks.

Animal-friendly elements: Yes and no. While the story is ostensibly about Emmaline’s quest to save an injured winged horse, a refugee from its own world in the mirrors, most likely Foxfire is a metaphor or allegory: a way for Em to claim control in a chaotic world ruled by war (WWII) and sickness (TB). After Anna dies, for example, she appears in the mirrors in pegasus form; she hasn’t died, just metamorphosed: into something freer, truer, better. While Shepherd purposefully leaves the ending open – Foxfire could be a figment of Anna’s imagination; a “regular” horse or mule or deer, left injured and untreated by the war; Bog, transformed through Thomas’s letters; or an honest-to-goodness Pegasus in what’s really a fantasy novel – I don’ think we’re meant to take the story literally. See, e.g., Em’s reimagining of her mother and sister’s cries for help as those of horses (in the section on Diversity above).

That said, there are quite a few nonhumans in the story, for better or worse. Briar Hill raises chickens and sheep, presumably for food and clothing, including to contribute to the war effort. Emmaline sometimes finds comfort among the sheep; in the barn, she is alone but not lonely. Em remembers Marjorie as a kind girl who frequently rescued animals: cats (and the mice the girls’ mom wanted the rescued cats to hunt!), birds, etc.

There’s a pretty ridiculous line about how some formerly free-roaming horses on the American plains are “happy” to be captured, imprisoned, and enslaved, i.e. “broken”: “Some are happy to be tamed and pull carts and carry saddles on their backs. But others never are.” I think I know what she means – some animals take better to domesticity than others – but still. Vomit.

 

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