Title: The Secret Horses of Briar Hill
Author: Megan Shepherd
Illustrator: Levi Pinfold
Publisher: Walker Books
Emmaline lives at Briar Hill, a sprawling mansion where a countess once lived. It is now run by the Sisters of Mercy, housing sick children suffering from the stillwaters, tuberculosis. Emmaline, like all the other children, was evacuated during the bombings in London. In a deserted part of the once sprawling gardens Emmaline finds a winged horse, Foxfire. Since Emmaline’s arrival she has seen them in mirrors, but never so close or in her own world. The Horse Lord has sent Foxfire, with her wounded wing, to Emmaline. Through letters he has asked her to protect Foxfire from the Black Horse. Emmaline must do this by hanging an item matching each colour in the rainbow. She uses Anna’s colour pencil set to guide her colour selection. She must be quick however, as the Black Horse, “…the cause of everything that is wrong” (p. 159), is always nearby.
This is a beautiful novel in every way. Physically, it is gorgeous. The dust cover comes off to reveal a black hard cover with feathers. The end papers are the only illustrations with colour, a bluish landscape of Briar Hill. The opening title page has a double page spread of the same house and a young child standing outside the fence, a statue of a horse on top of one the pillars. The illustrations throughout are elegantly drawn with pencil and are very much a part of the narrative, working with the verbal text perfectly. The writing is emotive and elegant, exuding the smell of horses, sheep and a box of coloured pencils made from wood.
The Black Horse is a symbol of many things, including the enemy, inflicting death and despair, and also the disease the children suffer. Emmaline has been separated from her family due to her illness but also for other reasons slowly unveiled throughout the book. Thomas, the gardener and grounds man, has his own difficulties, having been born with one arm and with his father also at war.
This book took me a little while to read, books written in this manner always do. I read a sentence, and then re-read it for its beauty to last. This happened throughout. Megan Shepherd has turned a dismal situation into one in which there is love and care. This is also expressed in the illustrations. Pinfold is an amazing artist. Check out some of the images at Walker Book UK or Levi Pinfold’s website.
I am not quite sure for whom to recommend this book, as I think it suits a wide-ranging audience. It is certainly a very special book.
Thank you to Walker Books for supplying this book for review.
Other books with similar theme of evacuees during the Second World War: