Riding Freedom by Pam Munoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick 138pp RL4
Riding Freedom by Pam Muñoz Ryan is a fantastic book. Based on the life of Charlotte "Charley" Darkey Parkhurst, a woman born in 1812 who lived her life disguised as a man, Riding Freedom is the story of how this amazing woman came to be. Orphaned when she is two, Charlotte ends up the only girl at a orphanage for boys. Not much more than a kitchen maid and never allowed to be adopted, Charlotte finds her joy in the stables, talking with Vern, a freed slave and helping with and learning how to ride the horses. When Mr Milkshark, the head of the orphanage, finds a reason to keep Charlotte from riding the horses and her only friend Hayward is adopted the same day, Charlotte decides to run away.
With the help of Vern, she cuts her hair, dresses in boy's clothes and catches the stagecoach tothe end of the line, Concord, Massachusetts. When she helps the stage driver bed the horses in their stable for the night, she ends up sleeping there. She hides out as long as she can, cleaning the stalls, which are in poor shape, when no one is there. Finally, she is discovered by Mr Ebenezer Balch, owner of the stagecoach company. Recognizing her work ethic and way with horses, he hires her on, but tells her he will soon move his business to Providence, Rhode Island and won't need her help there. Through a turn of events, Charlotte ends up being trained to drive a stagecoach and moving to Providence with Mr Balch.
The story follows Charlotte as she becomes a successful stage driver, exacts revenge on Mr Milkshark six years after running away. After becoming a successful stage driver, Charlotte is convinced by her fellow drivers to try her luck in California. She makes out out there, by way of Panama, and takes up driving again, still posing as a man. She loses sight in one eye while shoeing a horse but convinces the rest of the men that she can still drive. Eventually, she saves enough money to purchase her own land - a privilege allowed only to men at the time. The book ends with her voting in the 1868 Presidential election and reuniting with Mr Balch.
The life of Charlotte Parkhurst is truly an amazing one, and Ryan does a superb job of fitting it into a relatively short book. She creates warm and caring characters in the people of Mr Balch and Hayward and keeps the story moving at a gallop. She ends the book beautifully, with the difficult birth of twin horses, a boy and a girl.
There are two pages of historical information on the life of Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst at the end of the book.
Readers who enjoyed this book might also like Clara Gillow Clark's about another girl who dresses as a boy and does a man's job. Hill Hawk Hattie is the first in what is now three books about Hattie, who's story begins in 1883 in New York.