Pony, by R.J. Palacio

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Review by Nancy Brannon

The gist: Palacio’s 2021 novel Pony is an intriguing story about a boy on a quest to rescue his father, with a ghost as his companion, and a mysterious pony as his guide.

Twelve-year-old Silas Bird is awakened in the dead of night by three menacing horsemen who take his father away. Silas is left shaken, scared, and alone, except for the presence of his companion, Mittenwool, a ghost. His father promises to return in a week and Silas must remain at home. But when a white-faced Arabian pony shows up at his door, Silas makes the courageous decision to leave his home and embark on a perilous journey to find his father. Along the way, he will face his fears, unlock the secrets of his past, and explore the mysteries of the world around him.

Palacio is the author of a number of children’s books and this one is intended for middle-school young readers. However, the story will capture the attention of adults, as well, and perhaps inspire additional research on topical themes in the book, such as the science of photography, telescope making, classical literature, violins, spiritualism, history of printing, and counterfeiting.

Adults may want to read first the Author’s Note at the end of the book, which explains her research for the novel. Palacio is fascinated with the history of photography and the groundbreaking discoveries that happened simultaneously all around the world – some by people now famous, some by people who never knew notoriety. She is especially interested in antique types of photography, daguerrotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, and entire Victorian-era albums.

She loves antique musical instruments, and was particularly drawn to the name of Silas’ mother’s violin, Mittenwald, which means in the midst of the forest - mitten im Wald. (Maybe that’s where the ghost Mittenwool gets his name.) Mittenwald is a small town in Bavaria, Germany, a center of violin making since the mid-17th century. The first violin maker to set up his workshop in the town was Matthias Klotz.

She also loves antique books and names several which she references throughout the book. Each chapter begins with an antique photograph and a quote from a book or writing. And she did a lot of research on counterfeiting.

Back to the plot: The story begins in 1860 with Silas and his Pa living out West near a small, remote town. Silas was once struck by lightning, which has left a mark on his back, and he has the ability to see and speak to ghosts. This may remind you of Melinda Gordon on the TV show “Ghost Whisperer.”

Silas is “home-schooled” by his Pa, often characterized as a genius, after his teacher, the Widow Barnes, raps Silas’ knuckles for believing in ghosts. So Silas’ education is filled with all kinds of things other boys his age would not know. Pa is a boot maker by trade, but also an engraver, a photographer, and an innovator in photo development. One of his Pa’s inventions is a telescope to capture a photo of the full moon at its perigee.

The reason Pa is taken away by Ollerenshaw’s gang of rough men is for his engraving skills, as they expect him to make perfect bank notes in their counterfeiting scheme.

As Silas is on the journey to find his father, he links up with several interesting people. The first is U.S. Marshall Enoch Farmer, who agrees to take Silas along with him in search of the notorious counterfeiter Mr. Ollerenshaw. Farmer explains to Silas that the Orange Street Gang was the biggest counterfeiting ring in New York. Marshall Farmer may remind some of Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, who helped a headstrong 14-year-old girl track down her father’s killer.

Other characters are Sheriff Chalfont and Deputy Beautyman, who also agree to help Silas find his father and go after the notorious Ollerenshaw. Once they find the gang holed up in a cave, other gang characters emerge, like the “twins” and Rufe Jones, a very talkative co-conspirator who wants to escape punishment for his part in the counterfeiting operation.

There’s Ollerenshaw himself, who believes he can get away with his scheme and successfully bribe any judge who might be inclined to put him away. He continually insists that Silas’ Pa is Mac Boat, the man who stole $25,000 worth of gold coins, and he wants Boat to show him where the gold is buried. Silas denies his Pa is Mac Boat, but is Martin Bird.

Silas’ mother died when she gave birth to him, but Silas takes his mother’s violin on his journey with him. We find out later in the book that the violin was a Mittenwald, made by Sebastian Kloz in 1743.

As the book progresses, more of the connections from Silas’ past are made manifest. Turns out, Sheriff Chalfont’s wife Jenny was a music student of Silas’ mother, who taught her to play the violin.

Silas eventually visits the home where his mother was raised and gets to meet his grandmother. While walking through the grounds of her estate, he finds the buried gold.

Perhaps I’ve given away too much, but there is much more of the story that I have not revealed. The journey to find his Pa and the surefootedness of Pony, with his ability to successfully navigate the roughest and steepest terrain will hold your interest, as twists and turns – and a leap over a huge abyss – keep you in suspense as you travel with Silas. The book will inspire you to look up many of the references to ancient and classical literature that Palacio mentions, as well as terms you may not be familiar with. What a remarkable parent and teacher Silas’ Pa was! I won’t reveal the outcome of Silas’ search.

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