Pony by R.J. Palacio

Pony by R.J. Palacio. Alfred A, Knopf, 2021. 9780553508116

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 5

Format: Hardcover

Genre: Historical fiction

What did you like about the book? Whatever I was expecting next from R.J. Palacio, it wasn’t Pony, a ghost story that recalls Charles Portis’ 1968 classic True Grit. The story opens in 1860, with 12-year-old Silas Bird being awoken in the middle of the night by 3 ruffians who abduct his beloved father, leaving Silas alone with his best friend, a teenage ghost named Mittenwool. Silas and his father have lived an isolated life (for reasons that become obvious later) with dad working as a boot-maker but also increasingly as a photographer, skilled in the new technology of irontypes. The next morning, Silas finds a beautiful pony that the men have left behind and takes this as a sign that he should ride the animal in pursuit, despite Pa’s admonition to stay at the house. Accompanied by Mittenwool, he wanders too close to the haunted Bog, and has to be rescued by a crotchety U.S. Marshall named Enoch Farmer, who’s hot on the trail of the bad guys and a famous counterfeiter named Mac Boat. There’s a lot of mysterious goings on in the story: are Pa and Mac Boat the same man? Who is Mittenwool? Who else is a ghost? It’s really not a happy or easy novel to read and those who shy away from sadness or complexity will probably not be satisfied. But as with Wonder, R.J. Palacio is addressing powerful themes of loss and the fierceness of parental love in a way that defies easy categorization. The adventure elements, including Silas’s survival in the Bog and a final ambush and shoot-out in a cave add a lot of forward momentum for fans of that genre. Meanwhile, the restless spirits who constantly reveal themselves to Silas, leave him bewildered about the difference between the living and the dead and make him as much of an object of derision as Auggie Pullman. Finally, Palacio provides us with several illustrative antique (and creepy) photographs that give us a feel for the Civil War era and a lengthy author’s note about her research. All the characters in the book cue as White.

Anything you didn’t like about it? Although the main character is 12, the narrator is the adult Silas, remembering the entire strange story after resolving the many mysteries far in the future. I liked that device, but it’s unusual for a middle grade or young adult novel and might appeal more to adult readers. Horse lovers expecting an animal story may be disappointed by Pony’s supporting role in the plot. 

To whom would you recommend this book?  I think this sophisticated novel may struggle to find the right audience. I would recommend it to strong middle school students up through adults. With its sad wistfulness and lack of conclusive answers, this book won’t be for everyone, but it’s certainly an immersive reading experience.

Who should buy this book? Middle schools and public libraries

Where would you shelve it? Fiction

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? It’s very idiosyncratic, but with the Wonder universe being so well-loved, I feel like you’ll have to read it, if only to figure out how to recommend it to curious patrons.

Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA

Date of review: December 17, 2021

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