‘Pony’ by R. J. Palacio is a superb new novel about devotion

Pony by R.J. Palacio

While the plot of “Pony” by R. J. Palacio reminded me a bit of another middle grade book about a pony, “Some Kind of Courage” by Dan Gemeinhart, the stories are quite different apart from being historical fiction with both boys having a horse that they love dearly. Each story is beautiful in its own right, and “Pony” is one that will not be quickly forgotten. In “Pony,” Palacio forces us to think about love, loss, and the connections that bind us to each other.

“Pony” is a page turner. It’s filled with action from the first page, where we meet Silas Bird, his father, his dog, and his best friend, a ghost he calls Mittenwool. Such is Palacio’s writing that we are rapt with Silas’s dilemma as he must decide whether to follow his father, who was basically kidnapped by three men with guns who called him by another name, or stay put in their house as his father had instructed him he must. But the decision is made easier when the pony with the strange markings that had accompanied the strangers, all black with a white head, returns to his house without a rider. Silas decides that the pony will be able to lead him to his father.

And thus begins Silas’s journey with Pony and Mittenwool. He soon meets a federal marshal who is tracking the outlaws and allows Silas to join him. As they travel through a mysterious forest, Silas feels strange, and he realizes that he’s able to see and hear the ghosts of those who were slaughtered by the participants in westward expansion who had decided that Native Americans were simply inconvenient. Such is Palacio’s writing that we come to believe that Silas is really seeing, and at times conversing with, these ghosts. It all seems quite normal, and his strange ability is an important part of the story.

He doesn’t believe that his father, Martin Bird, is the Mac Boat who is a famous counterfeiter and who has a fortune in gold coins hidden somewhere. But both men are from Scotland, and his father is a genius who had worked out how to take pictures and print them on paper, whereas previously they had been created on glass. Silas’s mother died right after giving birth to him, so he and his father are close. His father is the only family he has, so it’s understandable that he wants to make sure that his father is safe. Mittenwool, his constant companion, seems as real to us as he does to Silas, as he can see things and has been Silas’s protector and guardian since Silas was a baby. We don’t quite understand the connection between them until the beautiful and very touching ending.

Palacio is like a master spider as she weaves a web of relationships and connections that we understand and feel before we read the reasons for them. We know that Mittenwool has stayed with Silas to guide and love him, but we don’t know why. We know that others befriend Silas in his time of need, but we are not sure why it seems so right until Palacio reveals the hidden strand of silk that ties them together. And she forces us to consider that love transcends death. Not that there are really the ghosts of those we love around us, but that our feeling for those we have lost continues as a primal emotion even long after those loved ones have left. Such are the impressions we leave on those we love.

Kids will love the story and the adventure. Adults will help them realize that the story is about much more than just a gunfight or the relationship between a boy and a pony. As a read-aloud or book club book, this is one that children and adults will remember long after they’ve finished the adventure. Teachers take note: A wonderful activity would be to read this book and Dan Gemeinhart’s book, “Some Kind of Courage,” and have the students discuss how the books are similar and how they are different.

Please note: This review is based on the advance reader’s copy provided by Knopf, the publisher, for review purposes.