- Winner, Best Books for Kids & Teens -- Canadian Children's Book Centre
- Commended, One of the Year's Best for 2011 - Resource Links
- Short-listed, Finalist - Hackmatack Childrens Choice Book Award
If Willie could have his dream, he would go to Sable Island and ride free over the sand dunes on the back of a wild horse. Instead, 11-year-old Willie must work in the coal mines of Cape Breton, hardly ever seeing the light of day. But with the help of Gem, the gentle pit pony, he discovers that things aren't always as bad as they seem. And a surprising event reveals that miracles can happen, even in a coal mine.close this panel
The wild horse screamed as its feet left the deck of the schooner. Then its body hung, limp and helpless in the sling under its belly, as it was winched ashore.A crowd had gathered on the wharf to witness the spectacle of wild horses captured on far-off Sable Island, and brought to Nova Scotia to work in the coal mines of Cape Breton.Among the watchers, a small boy stood with hands clenched into fists, his face twisted with pity. Tears trickled down his pale cheeks. His name was William Maclean but he was known around the coal mining town of Green Bay as "Wee Willie." Sometimes he was called "Wee Willie the Whistler."Many of the Cape Breton miners had nicknames, like "Danny the Dancer," "Stumpy Sam," and "Freddie the Fiddler." This was because so many of the Scottish families had names exactly the same. There were three William Macleans in Green Bay School, but Wee Willie was the one best known around town. When he wasn't at school he could usually be found hanging around one of the livery stables, wanting to help with the horses.In those days, back at the beginning of the twentieth century, horses were a part of everyday life. A coal mine could not operate without them. In Willie's town, many different breeds were for hire — fast, pretty Morgans for driving or riding horseback, and big, strong Clydesdales for pulling heavy loads. Pairs of matched white horses were hired for weddings, and blacks for funerals.Wee Willie loved them all. In fact, when he was with horses he forgot about everything else. Too often, he came home for supper too late to help with the chores. On these occasions, his little sisters, Maggie and Sara, had to go to the town well for water. It was much too hard for them. They staggered home with the heavy tin pail between them, sloshing water against their long skirts. His older sister, Nellie, who had all the other house-hold tasks to do, had to feed the hens, bring in the eggs, and carry in scuttles of coal for the kitchen stove.Tonight, Willie was late again. Not until the last horse struggled to its feet on the slippery wharf did he realize the sun had almost set. He dashed a grubby fist across his eyes and started for home. He knew how angry his father would be. He would give Willie a thrashing and send him to bed without his supper.Willie didn't mind the thrashing quite as much as he minded going to bed without his supper. The Maclean children, whose mother had died when Willie was six, didn't have as much to eat as some of the other families. His father, Rory Maclean, was a pit miner who worked with Willie's brother John in the Ocean Deeps Mine. He was a proud, stern man. He refused to charge at the Company Store. All the same, the family lived in a Company house, for the sake of cheap rent.Willie lived on Sunny Row. Not a tree nor a flower grew along the dirt lane. The houses were all the same, shaped like rectangles with slanting roofs and square, small-paned windows. It was called Sunny Row because of a habit the men had of sunning themselves during the long afternoons of the brief, Nova Scotia summers. The miners' wives put wooden washtubs on the steps, and here the colliers sat when they came home from the pit, still black around the eyes with coal dust. They would soak their sore, tired feet in the warm water, and joke back and forth while they watched their children play ball or kick the can along the dusty street.But now it was October. The days were short and the nights were cold. Willie should have been home from school long since.He went around to the back of the house. As soon as he stepped into the porch he smelled supper. Ceann groppaig!* His favourite dish! His sister, Nellie, was a good cook. And he would have to go to bed without a single mouthful.He opened the door a crack and peeked in.There they were, the whole family, six of them, seated around the table in the warm kitchen. His frowning, dark-mustached father sat at one end. The lamplight shone on the bright red heads of Nellie and his big brother John and made pale ovals of the faces of the dark-eyed little ones, Maggie and Sara. It reflected on the spectacles of his tiny old grandmother in her frilled white cap, as she peered over at him from her rocking chair. In the middle of the table sat the steaming ceann groppaig, a huge codfish head stuffed with a pudding made of rolled oats and flour and mashed cod livers.All this, Willie saw in the flash of a second — and he was puzzled. What had happened? Usually the children ate first, because there weren't enough chairs to go around. When there was a ceilidh,* or when the minister came to call, then Nellie would borrow extra chairs from one of the neighbours. But tonight there was no guest.He opened the door a crack wider.His father glared at him from under his bushy, black eyebrows. "Come in," he ordered. "Shut the door. You're letting in a cold draft."Willie went in, hanging his head, shamefaced, and shut the door. Then the whole family shouted together, "Happy Birthday!"He had forgotten. It was October 12, 1902, and he was eleven years old."Wash your hands and come to the table for blessing," said his father.Willie went to the dry sink and poured cold water from a bucket into the tin basin."How could you forget your own birthday?" scolded seven-year-old Sara, the youngest of the family, bouncing up and down in her chair."Hush! Bow your head for blessing," said Rory Maclean.As soon as Willie sat down, his father prayed, "God bless this house and this family. Teach them Thy ways, O Lord. May William learn, from this day on, to assume his full share of family responsibilities. Amen."He raised his head. The corners of his mustache lifted and he smiled at them all, including Willie. As if a black cloud had floated away and the sun had come out, they all smiled back. Rory Maclean picked up a knife and fork and prepared to serve the ceann groppaig. Willie felt a warm and happy glow inside."But where were you, Willie? Why were you so late?" Sara persisted."Mmm!" Willie savoured his first mouthful. "I was down by the waterfront to see the wild horses come in from Sable Island. Me and some other boys wanted to see them unloading.""And did you?" asked his big, red-headed brother, John, as he reached for a thick slice of homemade bread."We did," said Willie. "And a sad sight it was, too. All them little wild, shaggy horses, scared to death. Some of them was cut and bleeding.""Why?" asked Sara."Because when they're aboard a schooner, they're tied by the legs and head so's they won't fall down or rear up in a storm," explained Willie, between mouthfuls. Then he added, "It's a terrible thing to capture wild horses and make them go down the pits." "Maybe it won't do," said his father. "Wild horses are apt to be fractious. But the Company can't find enough trained ponies to work the narrow seams."Sara tossed her blond pigtails. "Why...." she began, but her father interrupted impatiently."Be quiet, child, and eat up." He looked over at Willie and frowned. "Wil-lie needs to get home every night for his supper. If he don't, he'll stay little and stunted like a Sable Island pony. He's got to grow up big and strong to be a good miner."Willie was silent. He didn't want to grow up to be a miner. He wasn't like John who had never thought of being anything else. It had been a proud day for John when he had left school at fourteen and gone off to work with his father. He was considered a man now, with all a man's rights. No more thrashings for a boy who brought home a pay envelope.Willie looked up at his father. His big, long-lashed brown eyes were troubled. "Maybe I won't be a miner," he muttered.His father put down his knife and fork.Everybody stopped eating."Not be a miner! What will you be, then?"Willie was trembling. "I like horses. Maybe I could be a blacksmith ... or ... something.""A blacksmith! How could a puny mite like you work at a forge and swing a great hammer?"Willie hung his dark head, but he muttered, "'T'would be no harder than swingin' a pickaxe diggin' out coal in a mine."His father's face grew red with anger. "And where would the money come from to buy a shop and set you up with all your fancy ideas? We're a family of colliers, me and my father before me. I never thought to breed a lazy, good-for-nothin' brat who won't even do his share of chores. From now on, you get yourself straight home from school. If you're late for supper just once more, that's the end of school for you. You'll be down in the pits before you know what's happened to you."The children were silent, afraid of their father's hot temper. Little Maggie, the quiet, gentle one, began to cry. The birthday supper was ruined.As soon as the dishes were cleared from the table Willie did his lessons, lighted his stub of candle, and crept away upstairs to bed.Upstairs were two bedrooms and a wide, square hall. Willie and John slept together in a white-painted, iron bedstead in the hall. Now Willie crawled under the patchwork quilts. He blew out his candle, but for a long time he couldn't get to sleep. He was full of fear and anger.He muttered to himself under his breath, "I'll never go down the mines. Never, never, never. I'm not goin' to live all my life in the black pits and get killed by an explosion, like my grandpa. I'll run away. Maybe I'll get aboard a ship. Maybe I'll live on Sable Island with the wild horses. Nobody could find me there."He knew a lot about Sable Island, one of the loneliest places in the world. It was fully described in the second chapter of his history book. He thought about it now and imagined he was there, riding free on the back of a wild horse over the sand dunes and through the long grasses, where the waves thundered in crashing white foam on the beaches.But when he fell asleep, he dreamed of being lost, all alone, in the pitch dark tunnel of a coal mine.
Although former teacher JOYCE BARKHOUSE has been writing stories for many years, she was 61 when her first book was published. Since then, she has won many awards for excellence in writing, including the Order of Nova Scotia and the Order of Canada for her contributions to children's literature. Well known for her historical fiction, she achieved her greatest success with Pit Pony.ZOE LUCAS is one of the few permanent residents on Sable Island and is involved in research and environmental monitoring programs, including studying its wild horses and sea birds.close this panel
"...a vivid portrait of life in a Cape Breton company town at the turn of the century...This re-issue of a Canadian classic still has great appeal for the intended audience."