In an isolated house in the American Midwest in 1860, 12-year-old Silas lives a quiet life spent learning about the new art and science of photography with his father and his ghostly companion, Mittenwool. That all changes one night when, just before dawn, three riders come to their door bearing a long-forgotten name, a bald-faced pony and a demand that Pa accompany them on a mysterious errand. When the pony returns the next morning, riderless, Silas sets off on him to find Pa and bring him home. Along the way, Silas encounters a haunted forest, a grumpy federal marshal, a notorious ring of criminals and answers to questions he never thought to ask about his family, his friendship with Mittenwool and his own unusual abilities.
Author R.J. Palacio is best known for her bestselling contemporary-set middle grade novel Wonder. Palacio ventured into historical fiction with the 2019 Sydney Taylor Award-winning graphic novel White Bird, set during World War II, and she continues this foray into the past with Pony, which offers plenty of Wild West-style action, including a hidden hideout, a small-town sheriff and some tied-up villains.
Palacio underpins these hallmarks of typical Westerns with more historically accurate representations of the period’s deeper social injustices, such as colonialism, slavery and classism, while also exploring how a family’s past can affect future generations. Pony’s frequent references to Greek and Roman mythology are sure to have readers looking up the tales of Telemachus, Argos and more. Descriptions of photographic technology add historical detail, and connections between early photography and spiritualism mesh naturally with Silas’ sometimes frightening, sometimes comforting ability to see and interact with ghosts. Each chapter opens with a spooky 19th-century photographic portrait, and the subject’s gazes seem to bore into the reader’s soul.
Readers in search of fast-paced historical fiction with speculative elements should look no further than Pony. The twists and turns of Silas’ odyssey are both stunning and satisfying.