Friday, December 21, 2007

Riding Freedom

I had previously read two other books by Pam Muñoz Ryan while working on my Masters in Elementary Education. Then, while subbing earlier this fall, I had the opportunity to read part of Riding Freedom to a third grade class. While it is a short chapter book (138 pages), I did not have time to read the entire thing over my two days with that class. So, at the recent Scholastic Book Fair at another school where I sub regularly, I bought a copy.

Riding Freedom is a fictionalized account of the life of Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst. In the book, Charlotte is orphaned at the age of 2 and is sent to live at a boys' orphanage in New Hampshire in the mid-1800s. After ten years at the orphanage, Charlotte realizes Mr. Millshark, the man who runs it, and Mrs. Boyle, the woman who runs the kitchen, have no intention of allowing her to be adopted. Until Charlotte wins a horse race against the boys, which makes Mr. Millshark mad, Charlotte had been allowed to help out in the stables. There, she found a friend in Vern, the old former slave, who takes care of all the horses. She has also made a friend with one of the boys, Hayward. After the horse race, Charlotte learns Hayward will be leaving to live with a new family, and she has been barred from visiting the stable or riding the horses.

Charlotte makes a big decision: she decides to run away. But, she also realizes that while a boy of twelve can travel alone without question, girls can't do the same thing. So, with a little help from Hayward and Vern, she leaves the orphanage to try and make her own way in the world. She makes her way to the nearest town and purchases a ticket for the stage to Manchester. When the stage arrives, Charlotte is enthralled with the team of six horses pulling the stagecoach. She finds herself seated between two women who are passengers for the remainder of the line. She falls asleep and later awakes to find herself at "the end of the line in Worcester, Massachusetts"(p. 47). She doesn't have much money - only what is left of Vern's money after purchasing the ticket - and doesn't really have a place to go. So, she hides in the loft above the stagecoach horses. Before settling in for the night, she works at cleaning up the barn - it doesn't meet Vern's standards. Eventually, she is discovered by Ebeneezer Balch, but she fesses up to be the one doing work there at night and works out a deal to continue working for room in the loft and board.

Months later, Ebeneezer tells "Charley" that a man came through asking about a runaway orphan girl who might have drown, but that she had run away about the same time as he had found "Charley" in the loft. Did "Charley" know anything about that? Charlotte denies knowing anything and Ebeneezer says the girl probably did drown. But, Charlotte can't help but wonder if Ebeneezer knows... She is scared and tells Ebeneezer she needs to get home - he's moving the stables anyway.

Ebeneezer held up both of his hands to block her way.

"Just stay put," he said. "Now listen. In all my days, I only seen one other person could work with the horses like you. Could put a spell on them and could ride . . . could ride like . . . well, I only seen it one other time. I got me a notion and maybe I'm crazy but I got to see if I'm right. If you can do what I think you can do, I'm not about to let you go."

As Ebeneezer walked out of the tack room, he sais, "Bring around six. I need a wagon hitched."

Charlotte tried to concentrate on what he'd said. Bring around six horses? Do what he thought she could do? Confused, she found the traces for the six-in-the-hand and brought the horses around, one at a time, to hitch them.

When each horse was secured to the traces, Ebeneezer said, "Charley, you drive."

Charlotte stared at Ebeneezer.

"I . . . I ain't drove six-in-the-hand before," she said. "I drove two, but not six."

"I know that," said Ebeneezer. "Get up here and let's take a run, unless you're scared?"

"I ain't scared," said Charlotte. (pp.59-60)

I'll not spoil the rest of the story's details. Charlotte lives a life that most all women of the time - before women's suffrage - would not have been able to live. At the back of the book, in From the Author, we are told what is actually known about Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst, and the creative license taken when writing the story is acknowledged and justified. Recommended for children ages 8 to 11, this would be a good book a young reader, especially one who loves horses, and it gives a young person an insight into how our nation has changed in the last 150 years or so.

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