Emmaline knows a secret: Briar Hill, a Shropshire mansion which has been turned into a children’s hospital during World War II, has beautiful winged horses that live in the mirrors of its elegant rooms. They move in and out of the mirror-rooms, walking through doorways, nosing half-finished cups of tea. But only Emmaline can see them, and she keeps the secret to herself. She knows the boys like Benny and Jack will tease her mercilessly if they knew. She doesn’t even tell her best friend Anna, who’s the most ill person at the hospital, for fear that she’ll distress Anna.
One day Benny steals a treasured piece of chocolate from Emmaline and eats it. Upset, Emmaline runs outside and (breaking the hospital rules) climbs over the ivy of a walled garden on the grounds. Inside the abandoned garden, a beautiful white horse with a soft gray muzzle, a star-like blaze of dark hair between her eyes, and snow-white wings approaches her. Emmaline notices that the horse’s wing is hurt and figures that the horse must have somehow come into our world from the mirror world to find a place of healing.
Soon Emmaline begins finding written messages in the garden, signed by the Horse Lord, telling her that this winged horse, Foxfire, needs her help to avoid being captured by the sinister Black Horse that flies about the hospital by night, hunting for Foxfire in the colorless moonlight. Before the moon is full again in two weeks, the Horse Lord’s message tells Emmaline, she must surround Foxfire with large, colorful objects, one for each color of the rainbow, to create a spectral shield that will protect Foxfire from the Black Horse, whose eyes are burned by color. But there are very few bright colors in Emmaline’s drab world.
Everything at Briar Hill is white snow and gray stone. It is the dull browns and greens of soldiers’ uniforms, and the black of nuns’ habits. No wonder we have drawn the Black Horse straight to us. Our world is colorless midwinter.
This will be a huge challenge for Emmaline. But the Horse Lord’s messages, always signed “Ride true,” encourage her to do her best.
The Secret Horses of Briar Hill is a gem of a middle grade book, wondrous and bittersweet. Surrounded by sickness, death and fear, and burdened by traumatic memories, Emmaline treasures her glimpses of the mirrored horses and her growing bond with Foxfire. The search for brightly colored objects at the Horse Lord’s behest gives her a new purpose, but it also leads her into trouble and some questionable decisions, and even into danger.
Megan Shepherd gracefully captures the atmosphere of this one small corner of the World War II conflict, children with tuberculosis who were evacuated to hospitals and wards in the British country. Emmaline calls tuberculosis the “stillwaters,” partly because she feels that her lungs are as “still and thick as swamp water,” running deep within Emmaline’s body. But it’s also a reminder that of the proverb that still waters run deep, and that children and teens (not to mention older people) may be struggling with deep, hidden troubles ― whether physical sickness or other types of distress ― that may not be visible to others.
As the plot unfolds, we gradually learn more about Emmaline’s past and how that affects her now, which sheds new possible interpretations on Emmaline’s experiences. One of the intriguing aspects of The Secret Horses of Briar Hill is that it’s unusually ambiguous for a middle grade book. There are different possible interpretations of the events related by Emmaline: this might be a truly magical story, or it might be that the winged horses exist only in Emmaline’s imagination. Readers will need to decide for themselves what they believe actually happened. In some books this ambiguity would frustrate me, but here I found it lovely and emotionally touching.
The Secret Horses of Briar Hill deals with deeply serious issues but is delightfully imaginative at the same time. It’s a timeless story, combining fantasy and magic with sometimes dark realities. This book deals with some difficult subject matter but does so in a way that isn’t too ponderous or distressing for young readers, and inspires us to keep hope, to follow our dreams. To ride true.