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  • Writer's pictureLinda Borromeo

The Island of Freedom: 'Misty of Chincoteague' and the Annual Pony Swim

"...for Assateague belonged to the wild things, and the wild ponies whose ancestors had lived on it since the days of the Spanish galleon."

Perhaps nowhere else in children's literature is the idea of freedom versus captivity for animals so movingly explored as it is in Misty of Chincoteague.

Written by Marguerite Henry, the story begins with the strange cry of a stallion locked in the hold of a Spanish galleon. As the stallion tries to free himself and his mares from the confining stalls, he is aware that a dangerous storm is coming. And it is not only the storm that threatens the little Moor ponies. They are on their way to a future working endless hours in a Peruvian mine.

What happens next sets the tone of the book. I recently read Misty of Chincoteague again for the first time since childhood. I could empathize with the two children in the story and their longing to have an Assateague foal for their own. Yet, I found my sympathies were all with the wild things.

Marguerite Henry does a masterful job keeping that tension strung tight throughout her story. Published in 1947, Misty of Chincoteague brought international attention to the small horses inhabiting Assateague Island off the coast of Maryland and Virginia. A centuries-old legend tells of the Moor ponies that escaped from the Spanish galleon into sunlight and freedom.

A less colorful account records settlers grazing their horses on Assateague Island to keep from paying taxes due to fencing laws. Some of the horses turned feral and formed bands on the Island.

I do prefer to believe the old legend, along with Grandpa Beebe in the story:

"...legends be the only stories as is true!" He stopped to find the right words. "Facts are fine, fer as they go...Legends, now--they go deep down and bring up the heart of the story."

What actually happened is lost to us now. What we do know is that for centuries, wild horses have roamed Assateague Island, becoming small, shaggy and round-bellied from living among the salt marshlands.

"Pony Penning Day always comes on the last Thursday of July..."

From Misty of Chincoteague

For over 90 years now, a Pony Penning Day and other family events have been held on Chincoteague Island (the 95th year of the pony swim, scheduled for July 29, 2020, is canceled due to Covid-19).

In previous years, the small horses, affectionately known as ponies, are rounded up: stallions, mares and foals. In a scene made famous by Misty of Chincoteague, the ponies swim across the channel from wild Assateague Island to the more placid Chincoteague. There they are penned and the foals auctioned off to prevent overcrowding and to raise funds for the Chincoteague Fire Department.

I knew Misty of Chincoteague featured actual people and used their real names in the story. I didn't know until recently that the author purchased Misty from the Beebe family. The small horse was brought to live in Wayne, Illinois, far from the sea.

According to the article, Who Is Misty of Chincoteague?: "Misty stayed with Mrs. Henry for over ten years, appearing for her fans at schools, movie theaters, museums, libraries, and horse shows."

In 1957, Mrs. Henry returned Misty to the Beebe family ranch on Chincoteague Island. Misty could once again feel the wind off the Atlantic Ocean and taste the saltwater grasses.

In her book, Marguerite Henry describes one of the descendants of the little Moor ponies as "a piece of wind and sky." That untamed image is the one I want to remember after turning the last page of Misty of Chincoteague.

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