I received this book free from NetGalley and Holiday House as an advanced reader copy.
Mending Horses by M. P. Barker is the companion novel to A Difficult Boy. You do not need to have read A Difficult Boy to read and enjoy Mending Horses.
I love horses, which is what originally drew me to Mending Horses; little did I know there was so much more to this story than just a boy loving his horse. In this day and age girls can do whatever they like for the most part, but in early nineteenth century Massachusetts it’s absolutely unacceptable for a little girl to pose as a boy, let alone to be out of the house traveling around with a peddler. It’s even worse when you’re a former indentured servant, and Irish to boot. Daniel (who we meet in A Difficult Boy) has been freed from his servitude, but is finding that life as a free man is not as easy as he imagined it would be. He travels through rural Massachusetts looking for a peddler he had met before, Jonathan Stocking, who ends up taking the boy on to rescue him not only from everyone around him, but also form himself. Jonathan already has his hands full with his young charge Billy, an Irish girl posing as a boy with a beautiful singing voice. She’s a firecracker, and not at all happy about Daniel joining their little group, which she makes very obvious to everyone by acting sullen and rude whenever he’s around. They have a very sibling-esque relationship right from the beginning, though there’s more animosity on Billy’s part than anything else, as Jonathan tries to get the two to get along. Daniel doesn’t quite know what to do with the little girl who he believes should be in the kitchen, rather than traveling about with himself and the peddler, but his opinions soon change as he gets to know Billy. Neither one notices when the change takes place, when they begin joking playfully instead of quarreling, and when Daniel becomes almost protective over the younger child. They learn to work together and stick together as they care for and train a group of ponies in a traveling circus, all under the watchful eye of father figure Jonathan Stocking. The three truly become a sort of misfit family, whose care for one another overrules anything else that comes along. They ultimately teach each other some important life lessons, ones I think any reader cold benefit from learning.
I have to disagree with this book’s statement that it’s for middle grade readers, and would more readily recommend it to young adult or even adult readers because of its content and the way it’s written. It’s a poignant and seriously written work of historical fiction and deals with issues of gender equality and acceptance of difference cultures and races. I found it to be lagging in some spots, but overall an incredibly sweet, touching book about learning not only to trust others, but to trust yourself. It’s a wonderful coming of age novel about a boy and his horse and a girl who learns what it means to truly be free.