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Joyce Barkhouse

Pit Pony Not Just Another Boy and His Horse

By Mary Jane Parsons

Volume 19 Number 1
1991 January

"You may not grow up to be a big man, Willie ...but you have lots of brains. You study hard at school and you can be ... well, you can be whatever you want to be."

Joyce Barkhouse is a believer in education. Barkhouse's latest novel, Pit Pony, not only educates about life in a coal-mining town in turn-of-the-century Cape Breton but reflects the importance of education itself.

Perhaps the years Joyce Barkhouse spent as a teacher have helped her identify just what children want in a story. Certainly Pit Pony, recently named a "choice" of the Canadian Children's Book Centre, is a tremendous success among children, parents and educators. A copy of Pit Pony has been sent to every elementary school in Nova Scotia and Pit Pony has been added to the reading list for New Brunswick a schools.

Pit Pony is the story of "Wee" Willie Maclean, an eleven-year-old boy forced by family circumstances to work as a trapper in the coal mines of Cape Breton, and of Gem, the Sable Island mare he befriends. But don't let the universal theme of a boy and his horse cheat you into thinking Pit Pony is mere sentimental cliche. Barkhouse makes n attempt to hide the stark realities of life for a young miner: dressing in the cold, dark morning; poisonous gases; harassment by more seasoned miners; and the ever present danger of "bumps" in the mine. The reader can sense without being told the control the mine owners exert over the mining families. This control is felt as the Macleans fear eviction from a company house and in the pride that prevents the family from charging new boots for Willie at the company store.

When questioned if the realistic portrayal of mining life in Pit Pony is distressing to her young audience, Barkhouse says not. On the contrary, the realism may account for some of the book's popularity. Barkhouse suggests that children's imaginations have become sated with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers and the like, and that a story about a family uniting to face a genuine difficulty is appealing. The unromanticized sense of family duty and responsibility is a draw for many children and nicely balances the harshness of Willie's experience.

Barkhouse, a native of the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia, began her teaching career in a one-room school house teaching all twelve grades "except that grade seven was missing." Barkhouse believes that an essential element of a child's education is the richness to be discovered and explored in one's own local history. Several of Barkhouse's early books celebrate the accomplishments of Canadians such as Thomas Raddall, Abraham Gesner and George Dawson. These biographies are aimed at young people and are written in such a fashion as to entertain as well as educate. A lesson she learned early in her writing career, Barkhouse says, is not to lose the story among the research.

As Pit Pony required Barkhouse to do a great deal of research, sharing this process with school children affords a great opportunity not only to relate historical fact abut coal mining in turn-of-the-century Cape Breton but also to discuss how this fact is turned into fiction. Decisions must be made regarding setting, characterization, etc. The children learn that it was Barkhouse's attraction to Sable Island horses and their fate that led her to the plot of Pit Pony. It is just possible that this same attraction is reflected in the character of Wee Willie. Barkhouse's first choice for a setting was Pictou, N.S., but her research indicated that Cape Breton would be more appropriate.

Attending a Canada Council reading featuring Barkhouse, one has only to witness the confidence and enthusiasm with which children approach her with questions and comments to establish the popularity of Pit Pony. One question inevitably raised is, "Did you ever go down into a mine?" The answer to this is a surprising "No"-- surprising since Pit Pony is written with such detail and accuracy that one would suppose Barkhouse had first-hand experience.

This reluctance to explore a mine almost resulted in Barkhouse's abandoning Pit Pony. Barkhouse lamented to friend and editor Janet Lunn that writing a story about a coal mine without personal experience was practically fraudulent. Lunn, referring to Midnight is a Place by Joan Aiken, a novel she and Barkhouse had recently read and enjoyed in which there is a chase through the London underground, queried Barkhouse as to when she thought Aiken had explored the London sewer system!

The excerpt from Pit Pony children favour most during a reading is the passage which finds young Willie trapped in the mine during a "bump." Amidst falling rock, timber and choking dust, Willie must decide between escaping quickly with Gem or saving the life of his tormentor.

It is no surprise to Barkhouse that children are not frightened by the mine disaster. The Bible is filled with frightening stories, Barkhouse points out, as are the original versions of many fairy tales. Barkhouse did, however, experience some hesitation when writing The Witch of Port LaJoye (Ragweed, 1983), a Micmac legend in which the heroine is burned as a witch. There was concern that some might find this ending too gruesome for her young readers. These fears were happily unfounded and The Witch of Port LaJoye is being considered for a third printing.

Many Pit Pony fans are indignant at the death of the beloved Gem in the mine disaster and frequently question its necessity. Barkhouse explains that Gem's death was necessary in order to have Wee Willie leave the mines and return to his education. Although Willie enjoyed his schooling and could see a life for himself beyond the mines, it is unlikely that he would leave Gem to the not so tender care of the other miners. Gem's death sets Willie free, free not only from the mines but free to pursue his studies and his dreams in the company of his family, friends and Sandy, Gem's foal.

What's next for Joyce Barkhouse? Despite pleas from school children for "more" about Wee Willie, a sequel to Pit Pony is not planned. For her next project Barkhouse would like to develop and publish stories from her own childhood which for many years have delighted and entertained her own children and five grandchildren.

Mary Jane Parsons is a student in the MLIS program at Dalhousie University and a staff member at the Halifax City Regional Library.

Books By Joyce Barkhouse

Abraham Gesner. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1980.

Anna's Pet (with Margaret Atwood). Lorimer, 1980.

George Dawson: The Little Giant. Clarke, Irwin, 1974; Natural Heritage, 1989.

A Name for Himself: A Biography of Thomas Head Raddall. Irwin, 1986; Natural Heritage, 1990.

Pit Pony. Gage, 1990.

The Witch of Port LaJoye. Ragweed, 1983.
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