I’ve been reading a smattering of children’s literature lately to help friends sort through potential award nominees. One of the titles I came across was Dirt, a novel I would have loved as a kid.
The premise is one of hope and friendship. Yonder, a young girl whose mom has died, has quit talking. Period. She can talk, she just hasn’t since her mom died in a car accident. Her kind-hearted dad is despondent and drinks too much since his wife’s death, hardly noticing the comings and goings of his little girl. Yonder is teased and bullied at school, too stubborn to make her side of the story known. Our girl Yonder doesn’t take the bullying lightly, though, and gets a few licks in on the bullies. Of course, she is the one who gets suspended from school. After being suspended, she decides to skip school for a week, figuring nobody will notice. She busies herself around the shack she and her father call home and ventures out in the rain one evening. In the pouring rain she comes face to face with the little round Shetland pony from the neighbor’s house.
Yonder recognizes the pony and knows his reputation. The pony’s owner, Miss Enid, complains that the pony eats everything – glasses, newspaper, trash, iced tea (and the pitcher), tape, signs, and also has a penchant for pumpkins! Miss Enid calls him “evil pony beast,” so Yonder is hesitant to be around him. The pony has one eye and no name, but a mischievous and sweet personality that endears him to Yonder. She ends up calling him Dirt because he loves to eat it, play in it, and roll in it. Dirt becomes a regular visitor to Yonder and she realizes he is not an evil pony beast. He responds to Yonder even though she doesn’t speak. They quickly bond during Yonder’s week of being AWOL from school and Yonder finally has someone who cares about her and whom she can love in return.
The good times can’t last forever when you’re a young girl ditching school. The social worker shows up Monday to find out why she hasn’t been at school. Yonder nonverbally communicates she’s sick. Each day, Yonder promises to go to school. When she doesn’t show, the social worker forces her out the door. Off to school she goes only to come home and find she’s had a visitor. Dirt has made himself at home, getting into the “special cider” and taking a long nap in her house. Yonder and Dirt fall into a pattern of after school visits and they communicate wordlessly, growing closer as the days go by. Yonder worries that Dirt is not cared for when he wanders back to his home each night, just as Yonder is neglected by her own father as he falls into a deeper depression and drunken stupors.
One evening, Yonder is out walking and realizes Miss Enid is selling Dirt. And not as a pet. The sign in her yard says “Pony for sale. Good quality horsemeat.” Horrified, Yonder takes off to find Dirt to make sure he hasn’t already been sent away. Dirt is at her home, eating a fresh pumpkin. Yonder decides to move him into her house, hoping her father, in his stupor, won’t notice. He notices. Her dad agrees that Dirt can’t be sold for meat and offers to try and help Yonder keep him and, just like that, Yonder’s best friend moves in. Yonder heads to the library (my girl!) to research the care and keeping of Shetlands and finds it’s not unheard of for Shetlands to live in a home.
The two have an affectionate relationship. Yonder sets about getting Dirt’s room ready, training him to potty outside, and exercising him in secret. They play and nuzzle and enjoy each other’s company, often leaning up against each other and staring up at the sky. As Yonder says, “Sometimes the weight of a friend who needs you can lessen your load.”
The routine that Dirt and Yonder fall into is interrupted. Another bullying incident happens and Yonder decides she’s done with school. Social services eventually comes knocking again, and time’s up for Yonder, Dirt, and her dad. Things go from bad to worse as Yonder is placed in foster care and her father has a stroke from the stress. The doctor says Yonder’s dad will be in the hospital for quite awhile as he recovers, which means longer foster care for Yonder. Realizing she can’t do more for her father than the hospital can, Yonder hopes she can at least save Dirt. The rest of the book follows Yonder’s quest to track down her beloved friend, encountering a slew of people and animals along the way and using her determination and ingenuity to track down Dirt. He nasty Miss Enid brags she sold him to the junk man; he has sold Dirt to his brother; the brother has sold him to a petting zoo…you get the idea. It’s an ongoing chase to a satisfying conclusion.
The author, Denise Gosliner Orenstein, is pictured above with what I assume is the inspiration for Dirt. It’s a good story, reminiscent of other equine classics like Misty of Chincoteague, Black Beauty or The Black Stallion, one of my personal childhood favorites. Horse lovers and book lovers will enjoy this one!