BOOK REVIEW: The Secret Horses of Briar Hill by Megan Shepherd, illustrated by Levi Penfold
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell
Middle Grade / War / History
December 1941, World War II is raging. Emmaline has been evacuated away from the bombs to Briar Hill Hospital in Shropshire. When she gets there, she discovers a secret.
Around Anna I have to tiptoe, I have to pretend that everything is OK, I have to keep secrets to myself.
But I’ll tell you.
This is my secret: there are winged horses that live in the mirrors of Briar Hill hospital.
When Dr Turner learns of Emmaline’s discovery, he gives her medications to help with her delusions, and she learns not to talk about the winged horses so much. But then she finds out she’s not the only one who can see them.
“Emmaline,” Thomas said again.
“I see the winged horses, too.”
My heart goes thump, thump, thump. I’m not the only one! But I look away, because Thomas is like the shadows on the wall. Dark and ever-present and just a little bit scary. I know Benny’s stories about him aren’t any more true than the stories in the pages of his comic. I know this. And yet, if anyone else is going to be a part of my secret world I do not think I want it to be Thomas.
She discovers an injured flying horse, in the gardens where the children aren’t supposed to go, along with a note that sets her off on a quest to find brightly coloured items to protect this horse, Foxfire, from the Black Horse that is hunting her.
All the while the war rages on, children get sicker, and we get to learn more about Emmaline’s past.
The images within this book are evocative, gorgeous, and just downright perfect, with occasional double spread images that help to fill out the picture. But the words in themselves will reach right into your heart and pull on those strings. In truth, my feelings about this book actually grew overnight, between staying up late to finish the last few chapters and sitting down to write this review the following evening.
Upon closing this book, I felt there were too many things left unanswered, but after letting it sit for a day the full picture has become clearer, with the areas that felt less well fleshed out a day ago opening up to all the possibilities of interpretation.
This is a story about a time when everyone was on high-alert, and the battle on the front lines wasn’t the only one being fought. This is a story of kids who have experienced loss and will continue to do so, whose only personal items were donated by people across the pond in America. In this world, everyone is broken in one way or another.
Dr Turner is like Thomas: he isn’t whole. Only whole men can go to war to fight the Germans. But what Dr Turner is missing isn’t an arm or a leg or even a finger. It’s a part of his heart. It’s the daughter and wife he lost to the bombs. The missing part that makes him twitch when there is a thunderstorm – like that one time when lightning struck the roof and he crawled under the kitchen table like a dog and made a strange, frightened sound, until Sisters Constance and Mary Grace coaxed him out with weak tea.
Kids are being kids, and telling scary stories in the dark… in the middle of a practice air raid.
Anna leans forwards in her chair tensely. “Stop this at once or I’ll fetch-”
“He took pity on a child once.” Benny talks right over her. “A little baby who wailed and wailed, so he brought it back to its family in Wick. The witches were so cross that they took his arm in its place, as punishment. Cut it off, like felling a dead branch.”
“That’s absurd,” Anna says. “He was born without his arm.”
But no one is listening to Anna, except me.
In this world you might feel like you don’t belong, but you hold onto your beliefs when everyone else thinks you’re crazy.
I look in the window’s reflection. The paste has turned my skin into a clumpy mess.
The other children are fighting the urge to snigger.
The others won’t say it aloud, not with Sister Constance’s watchful gaze right there, but I know they are thinking it.
Thomas is a monster because he is missing something.
I am a monster because I have too much of something. Too much hurt. Too much rage.
I do not care.
Only monsters, it seems, know that there are worlds and worlds and worlds, and ours is only one.
You might have dreams and ambitions, even when you’re sick with tuberculosis and aren’t sure you’re even going to make it through the war.
“An explorer,” I say at last. “I’d like to discover new things that no one else has. Go places other people won’t.”
And then I feel embarrassed, because it is a silly wish. Explorers are brave, dashing men who fly aeroplanes and hunt Germans and have lungs that aren’t choked with stillwaters.
Anna blinks in surprise and then the most beautiful smile lights up her face. “But Emmaline,” she says, “you already are.”
And you might work out interesting ways cope with your grief and fears.
There is a comfort in sheep.
It isn’t just that they are soft and warm (though sometimes a bit dirty). It isn’t their bleating, or the way the little lambs climb all over each other. It is not their sheep smell, which the other children dislike but I don’t mind. It isn’t their pink tongues. It is the way you can say not a single word, yet not feel alone.
This is a world full of fears, and friendship, and loss. Of bombs, and adventure, and imagination.
Sometimes our horses back in Nottingham would get spooked. They were used to storms, but not bombs. Their eyes would roll and they would kick the doors of their stables, wanting to be set free. But Papa was away at war and we couldn’t let them out, or they would run wild through the streets and never came home. Marjorie would climb into bed with me and hold me tight, singing in my ear so we wouldn’t hear their cries.
I stare at the ticket.
The Sisters and Dr Turner think we do not know what the tickets mean, but of course we do. Of course. Yellow means extra doses of disgusting cod-liver oil. Yellow means only feeling the sunlight from a window.
Yellow means red is one step away.
“You’re wrong,” I say, and my voice is hard. “I’m getting better. I’m not like the really ill children. I only cough sometimes. I’d like the blue.”
I push my way out of the cupboard and walk towards the door with heavy steps. Clomp, clomp, like the clopping of a horse, except my boots make little noise on the hard floors. I hear Dr Turner’s voice through the crack. He is giving Sister Constance orders. More coughing comes, but that can’t be from Anna. Anna’s coughs are quiet and lady like, even when she is doubled over. This sounds like a soul being ripped apart.
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