Mustang, Wild Spirit of the West By Marguerite Henry

By the time the Marguerite Henry craze visited my grade school classmates in the early 70s, Henry had already published around 50 books about dogs and horses. Given my love of animal stories at the time, I’ve pondered my reasons for never joining my friends on the “Henry-Reading Train.” In fact, I didn’t read Misty of Chincoteague until a few years ago when I was teaching.

One fact I remember is that I couldn’t figure out how anyone could possibly know for sure how to pronounce Chincoteague, since I was hearing my friends all pronouncing it differently and it wasn’t in our dictionary. Somehow, that was a huge deterrent. The other element I have surmised from what I know to be true about myself even now. I think I looked at the shelf full of Henry books and was overwhelmed by the number, and intimidated by having no idea where to start, or whether I’d be expected to read them all once I did start.

Even then, I was put off by the idea of book series. I thought Ramona the Pest was hilarious, but never went on to read any other Ramona books. I couldn’t bring myself to start on Henry Huggins. I got a chuckle or two out of Pippi Longstocking, but I remember starting the next in the series and not finishing. Maybe I had already realized how unsatisfactory was the “Collect All 12!” mentality we were supposed to absorb from t.v. commercials and cereal boxes. Whatever the cause of the aversion, I still don’t trust many authors to hold my interest beyond two related books.

The reason I consider these musings relevant as a preface to a review of a single book is that I’ve often lamented the lack of any direction of my voracious reading habits when I was young. And by that, I mean at least into my late 20s! Why didn’t someone help me? About all I got was a list from my high school English teacher, “Outstanding Literature for College-Bound Students.” Because she was always reserving comments for those exalted “college-bound students,” and I knew I wasn’t one of them, I was going to show her, and read all 50. Nearly forty years later, I’ve only read a little over half on that list, and have no intention of trying to finish. That’s no kind of direction.

So, I’m thinking, what if a librarian or teacher had given me some idea of what the popular, and good, books were about? What if I had known I wouldn’t miss any of the story if I didn’t read all of them? I loved history, even then. Considering my propensity for reading afterwords, historical notes, and bibliographies, and asking, “How did he know that?” how might my reading path have been different if someone had told me which ones were stand-alone stories, or that many of them were actual history? Where was our school librarian?

Well, I’m still open to direction. My husband saw a pile of books I’d accumulated on my desk and asked me what I was up to. I told him I was contemplating books for a student, a young boy. He saw a Marguerite Henry book and said, “You know, there was one of hers I really liked when I was a kid. Mustang somethingorother.” Really, YOU liked one of those girly horse books? “No, this one was true, and it happened in our part of the country. It was about a woman who tried to save the wild mustangs, and her life was very interesting.” Again, really? YOU enjoyed a book about an animal rights activist? “At the time, it seemed like she had a very well-balanced view.” All right, I’ll check it out. The full title is Mustang, Wild Spirit of the West.

Velma Bronn Johnston was born in Nevada in 1912. She lived a free-range childhood in relatively primitive conditions, which does make for a very interesting story. By the age of five, she was her father’s ranch pardner, and she often worked as hard as an adult.

Her idyllic life was interrupted by polio. At the age of 11, she was sent to a clinic where she spent six months in a hip-to-head cast. This caused her face to grow lopsided, and made her self-conscious about her appearance for the rest of her life.

This is a touching, but well-balanced story of Velma’s crusade for the wild horses. She discovers that the wild horses are being systematically exterminated in the name of range management, but for the profit of dog food companies. The most efficient and profitable method of rounding up the horses first terrifies, then tortures them.

Velma, who comes to be known as Wild Horse Annie, often refers to humans, animals, and nature as God’s creation. Annie has grown up on a ranch. She knows the realities of life and death; she isn’t squeamish about hunting, and doesn’t believe animals should be treated like, or better than, people. But she understands that man has an obligation to care for the earth and God’s creatures. Her crusade is against cruelty and the attempted annihilation of the wild horses for the profit of a few big-money interests.

As a child, I might not have been impressed by Annie’s path from letter-writing campaigns to actually having to testify before Congress. Imagining myself being called upon to do something similar would have been nightmare-inducing. But I would have loved that Annie was willing to do something that terrified her in order to put an end to practices cruel to horses.

As an adult who remembers being the terrified child, I can identify with the insecure young woman who gradually learns to put aside her fears in order to speak up for creatures who couldn’t speak up for themselves. Annie draws her courage from knowledge of her pioneer heritage, the training of her parents, her belief in “We, the people,” and faith in God. I couldn’t help but exult with Annie, who says of her successful crusade, “I felt overwhelming pride in just being alive. And pride in a country which allowed a little Nevada-nobody to stand up on its highest pedestal and speak her piece.”