Mary on Horseback: Three Mountain Stories by Rosemary Wells, illustrated by Peter McCarty, 53 pp, RL 3

With Mary on Horseback: Three Mousntain Stories, Rosemary Wells, an important picture book author and illustrator, tells the story of an exceptional American figure from the perspective of children, just as she did with Lincoln and His Boys, illustrated by the painterly PJ Lynch. Once again, Wells is paired with another wonderful illustrator. Peter McCarty's moody drawings are evocative of early photographs and are well suited to the sometimes bleak lives of the people of the Appalachians. An accomplished picture book illustrator and author, most famous for her Max and Ruby books, Well's is a tireless advocate for literacy who has written a handful of young adult novels including Red Moon at Sharpsburg which is set during the Civil War and tells the story of India Moody and her fight to survive the war so she can attend Oberlin College, which accepts women, and study medicine.

As Well's acknowledges, the characters in Mary on Horseback are true to life, based on people from Marvin Breckenridge's documentary about her aunt and the Frontier Nursing Service that she founded in 1925, titled, The Forgotten Frontier, filmed in 1931. Wells begins the book with a brief description of Kentucky in 1923, listing all the modern conveniences of the time then noting that none of these, not electricity, running water or automobiles, are available to the people living in the Appalachians. The first chapter, "Mountain Medicine," tells the story of a boy who's father has his leg crushed while logging. Thinking that the granny-woman will have to amputate his leg, the family is surprised when Mary arrives and tends to him. When he is well enough, he is carried down the mountain on a stretcher and taken to the railway station where he will be put on a train for the hospital in Lexington. His son John, travels with the group, secretly at first. Mary takes him under her wing and allows him to stay with her and her nurses at her house in Wendover. The second chapter, "Ireland of Scotland" is narrated by Maggie Ireland, a nineteen year old who has answered Mary's newspaper adds and come all the way from Scotland to work with her. Maggie is up against an unfamiliar terrain and people who don't trust her and won't allow themselves to be given shots, even if it will save their lives. The final chapter is narrated by Pearl, a young girl who stops speaking after her mother dies giving birth to twins. Pearl's father brings the three of them to Wendover, telling Pearl to stay with the babies until they can come home. During this time, Mary, who has broken her back falling off a horse and can't go out to see patients, befriends Pearl and recruits her to help with her campaign to dress the girls of the Appalachians in denim overalls like their brothers. It seems that burn victims are most often girls, their dresses catching on fire as they tend to the wood stoves. Pearl speaks her first words when she delivers a pair of these overalls to a young girl. The book ends with a few pages on and a photograph of Mary herself, on horseback.

Wells manages to fill this short book with intense images and vivid characters who linger in your memory long after you finish reading. As with her book Lincoln and His Boys, the story she told made me want to learn more about Mary Breckenridge and her life. Even her niece, the filmmaker, [Mary] Marvin Breckingridge's entry in Wikipedia proved to be interesting. For these reasons, this book is a wonderful, gentle way to introduce readers to the joys and importance of reading non-fiction.

Readers who enjoyed this might like these other books with fictional characters who aspire to careers in medicine:

Listening for Lions by Gloria Whelan
Red Moon Over Sharpsburg by Rosemary Wells

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