Seventy years ago, on July 20, 1946, a strikingly pretty pinto pony was born on the Virginia island of Chincoteague. Her owners, Clarence and Ida Beebe, remarked immediately on the odd fact that Misty, as they named her, had two maps on her body: a splotch on her shoulder that looked for all the world like a map of the United States, another blaze on her flank suggesting the outline of her native commonwealth.
Just about that time, Marguerite Henry visited Chincoteague. Then 44, she had been writing professionally for much of her life, publishing mostly magazine stories about American history and wildlife until, beginning in 1940, she settled in to write children’s books about animals—first dogs and birds, then, increasingly, centering her writing on horses. Her 1945 novel, Justin Morgan Had a Horse, roved a tremendous success, reinforcing her decision to specialize. Now, at the very end of July, she was at Chincoteague to take in the island’s annual Pony Penning, a famed roundup in which ponies on the barrier island of Assateague are driven across the narrow channel between the two islands to Chincoteague and sold at auction.
Marguerite Henry called on the Beebes after hearing of Misty’s birth from the keeper of the inn where she was staying, asking whether she could buy the pony. Clarence, known as “Pa,” had taken a shine to Misty and declined, adding that he wanted her for his grandchildren. Eventually he relented, though, selling Misty to Henry for $150 after she promised that the book she would write about the pony would in some way include the Beebe family, grandchildren Paul and Maureen included.
Misty went off to Henry’s farm in the Fox River Valley of Illinois, and Henry set to work writing about the pony, detailing Misty’s heritage and dramatizing the capture of her parents, a chestnut stallion called Pied Piper and a black pinto called Phantom. If she put words in Pa’s mouth that sounded more fitting to a pirate than an oysterman (“Course it’s a legend. But legends be the only stories as is true!”), and if the shallow water between the two islands loomed oceanic in her yarn, she was faithful to the heart of the story, one full of excitement at that, with shipwrecks, crackling lightning, horse politics—yes, horses have politics—the thrill of the chase, and the majesty of freedom.
Misty of Chincoteague, published a year after Misty’s birth, proved an instant success, beloved of young readers from the moment it hit the shelves. It won a Newbery Honor in 1948, and it remained a bestseller for years. For her part, Marguerite Henry traveled west, returning with the burro hero of Brighty of the Grand Canyon. Misty and Brighty shared a stable for several years until Misty returned to Chincoteague to give birth to her own ponies, recorded in Henry’s follow-up book Stormy, Misty’s Foal and several related stories. Now, late in July each year, Pony Penning takes place, as it has since the 17th century, but always with a moment taken to commemorate Marguerite Henry, Misty, and the marvelous book they made.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.