Review of Pit Pony: The Picture Book
By Joyce Barkhouse with Janet Barkhouse, Illustrations by Sydney Smith
Formac Publishing, 2012

Pit Pony, first published in 1990, has had a prestigious history, receiving immediate and enthusiastic recognition and awards, and, at this point, countless fans across the generations. It has never been out of print.

Pit Pony is a Canadian classic. As with all classic stories, periodically they undergo a new incarnation. The most recent incarnation of Pit Pony is a picture book intended for young readers.

One of the truly delightful aspects of this version is that it is a collaboration between Joyce Barkhouse and her daughter Janet Barkhouse. Sadly, Joyce died in 2012, at the age of 98, before the book appeared. However, she had given this version her blessing and the incredible legacy she created and fostered during an extraordinarily active writing career lives on, not only in this most recent edition of her timeless story, but also in all her writings and work in the Canadian literary and arts world.

Joyce was a champion of early, sustained and life-long education. This belief and practice continues in Janet. In Pit Pony: The Picture Book, it is wonderful to see the continuity writ large as the daughter takes up the task from her mother of engaging children and young people, not only to learn about their heritage, but also to see the possibilities of their own expression. Joyce spent a good deal of her time visiting schools, reading to children, being accessible to them and answering their questions with honesty, grace and respect. Janet is doing the same, and finding that children are today as fascinated with this powerful story as they were when Joyce first published it in 1990.

By now, the plot of the story, set in Cape Breton, is familiar: young Willie must leave school to work in a mine in order to help support his family, because his father has been injured. Willie encounters a Sable Island horse named Gem – because of their small stature, these horses were used to move coal in the low-ceilinged mines on the island. The bond between Willie and Gem sustains the boy in this hard work. Sadly, Gem is killed during a “bump” (a rock fall) in the mine; but just before she dies she gives birth to a foal, which Willie will raise. The mine accident and Gem’s death turn the tide for Willie and he is allowed to go back to school.

The book itself is a lovely production. Formac Publishing brought in an accomplished illustrator, Sydney Smith, whose images are realistic and charming. The choice of which scenes or moments to render in image were thoughtfully made; they are appropriate and complement a text, which was adapted by Joyce and Janet for this more compressed telling. For example, whenever Willie is inside the mine, the background of the page is black, a truly effective, evocative way to convey to a child the idea of pitch darkness.

Pit Pony is an historical fiction based on historical facts. Joyce made the difficulties and harshness of life the foundation of the story, knowing that children have a capacity to grasp and process complexity. This reality underlies the essential message of the story that even in the midst of struggle and uncertainty, connections with others – even with a little Sable Island horse – help us carry on and hope. Even in the midst of sorrow, new life, new opportunities come to us.

The particularities of the time and place, the expressiveness of the characters and the thrilling plot are, of course, key factors in the longevity and popularity of Pit Pony; but the main reason for the story’s power is the directness and honesty of its telling. It tells children, and all of us, about the real world – it uses the real world to create true art.

Personal note:
I had the privilege of going to Sable Island in May 2008 with Janet Barkhouse. It was her first trip there, one she said she was making as much for her mother, who had never been, as for herself. A major reason for Janet’s visit was to see those famous Sable Island horses. It was a fascination with the Sable horses which confirmed in Joyce the desire to write Pit Pony. Janet’s keen observation and engagement while there was a joy to behold. (I myself was entirely over-awed and overwhelmed by the experience.) Thus, this collaboration between Joyce and Janet is such a wonderful evolution in the story of Pit Pony – it is an entirely natural one, and thankfully the idea manifested before Joyce’s death. How thrilled Joyce would be to see how ably and lovingly Janet has honoured her mother’s legacy.

Prepared for the Sable Island Green Horse Society
Sandra Barry, January 2013 ©

Pit Pony