Sunday, 3 February 2013

Review - Pony in the Dark by K. M. Peyton

To tie in with the author of the month feature we are having on the website and chat forum, I am reviewing a book by this month's chosen author, K. M. Peyton. it took me a while to choose what book to review. In the end I decided upon this one a) because it was aimed at younger readers and we don't have many book reviews for younger reader's books on the website b) the main protagonist is male and there is a distinct lack of younger reading level pony book aimed at males c) it is short and wouldn't take long to read! I'll let you decide which of these 3 reasons influenced me the most! Whichever the reason, I'm glad I chose this title as it is an excellent read for all ages. 


This is an historical story for younger readers, set in the early 20th century and centered around the theme of pit ponies. Tom lives on the isle of Shetland in Scotland where his father is a crofter who also breeds Shetland ponies. He falls in love with Storm, a friendly black Shetland foal, and the pair grow up together. When the inevitable time comes for his father to sell Storm Tom is heartbroken, especially when his friend is destined to become a pit pony. Later he visits his Aunt and Uncle who live near the pit where Storm is working. He is overjoyed to see his old pal and is pleased that he is being treated well and has a loving handler, but he is still saddened that the pony has to be stuck in the darkness, never to see the light of the sun. Tom is now of an age to choose a job and he wonders if, instead of going back home to become a crofter or fisherman, he should become a miner so that he could stay near Storm and live with his Aunt and Uncle who don’t have a son of their own. While he is pondering what to do however he learns there has been a terrible accident at the pit. He rushes there to see a stretcher being carried out with a lifeless pony lying upon it, and is devastated to discover it is his beloved Storm...


Although this book is aimed at younger readers, (being part of the ‘Young Corgi’ imprint which also features K M Peyton’s Paradise Pony and The Scruffy Pony), it is about as far from the fluffy glittery pony stories of fairy ponies and magic unicorns which are usually offered up as fare for the younger pony book reader. Instead it treats the young readers as intelligent, does not talk down to them and indeed presents life – including some unpleasant aspects – in a matter of fact way. This at times uncompromising attitude does mean that the book is unsuitable for very young readers or the ‘bedtime story’ age group. If you are looking for a pony book to read to your pre-schoolers, this is not it. However for those around age 8 upwards it is ideal.

The story provides real information for young readers, such as how life was like back in the day when children were expected to work from the age of about 13 or 14 and gives the readers a chance to compare their lives with those of the children in the book. It also paints a very detailed picture of a pit pony’s lifestyle. It actually explores some quite complex themes which will get children thinking. For example how the lives of both the pit ponies and the working class folk are paralleled, neither of them having much of a choice in their lifestyle:

“But [the men] can choose!” Tom cried, “The ponies can’t!”

“Perhaps. But it’s as your uncle says – you choose the mine or you choose to starve. There’s no alternative around here.”

(Page 73)

Possibly some of this will go over some children’s heads but I think it preferable to treating all younger readers as if they are half witted. I feel that a child reading this book will get so much more out of it than just a good story.

But, as with all the author’s works, a good story is still at the heart of the book. You are immediately drawn into the world of Tom and Storm and root for them throughout. Will Storm escape the mines? Will Tom also end up there? Will Storm survive the mining accident? It is an emotional story. Even an old fart like this reviewer had to have a quick blow on the old hankie when Tom goes to comfort the injured Storm. Perhaps because it is aimed at younger readers the book does not go down the usual 'working pony treated cruelly' route. In fact Storm is treated very well down the mines and is loved and respected. Although the young reader is not sheltered from reality in this story, the book - rightly so - does not dwell in detail upon anything too unsavoury or overly upsetting. The gentle plot twist in which Storm’s terrible accident actually brings about a happy conclusion is very neat and the resulting happy ending is appropriate for the younger age group. The author may have asked the reader to face up to some harsh truths of reality but has rewarded them with hope and happiness.

Because of the complexity of theme and background, and because of the author’s writing skill, this book will also appeal to much older children and indeed adults. Although the writing is obviously more simplistic than in some of the author’s books for older children or young adults, it never sounds babyish and the characters are all well drawn and fairly three dimensional. It is a very short book and perhaps you will find yourself wishing for more, but it will keep you hooked. In fact I even learned quite a lot about pit ponies that I didn’t know, such as how the pit ponies were clipped and shaved because of the heat down in the mines, and that the miners also used Welsh Cobs.

The story does not have many of the traditional elements of the pony book. There are no gymkhanas, riding lessons or adventures on horseback. It may not therefore appeal to those who only like these sorts of pony stories. It does however have that most important element of the good pony story – the bond between the hero or heroine and their pony. Tom’s devotion to Storm is never questioned and even though he doesn’t ride Storm or take him to shows, they have a partnership just as close and special as any pony club girl and her equine friend – perhaps even more so.

For me the book also has a personal touch as it is set partially in my old stamping ground of the North East of England and even mentions my home town of Sunderland (which does not feature in many works of literature I can tell you!) The North of England was still big mining country when I was a child. Friends had fathers who were miners, and there were even some pit ponies still working! It is good to know that the pit pony is a thing of the past in this country, but sad that the communities which relied on mining were all decimated with the eventual closure of the pits. This historical story is very real for me.

One last reason I like the book is that there are precious few pony books for younger children with male heroes. If you are a young boy who loves horses, there really is not much on offer. This story though is ideal. Of course this does not mean that girls will not enjoy the story too, and I would recommend it to both boys and girls.

For me this is the perfect pony book for younger children of around 8 upwards, but especially precocious or easily bored readers. Parents, if you want to choose a book for your child which will make them think as well as entertain them and allow them to run the full gamut of emotions, this is it. For those who would rather wrap their children in cotton wool and protect them from all realities of life, then go out and buy one of the myriad fluffy ‘magical pony’ books on offer. However your child will be missing out on a fantastic story and an opportunity to learn a lot at the same time.

I would rate this book as 5 horseshoes (excellent).

The review is also available on the ponymadbooklovers chat forum review section where you can vote on how good you think the book it. You can add comments there or here, whichever you choose.