When orphaned young Maria Merryweather arrives at Moonacre Manor, she feels as if she’s entered Paradise. Her new guardian, her uncle Sir Benjamin, is kind and funny; the Manor itself feels like home right away; and every person and animal she meets is like an old friend. But there is something incredibly sad beneath all of this beauty and comfort—a tragedy that happened years ago, shadowing Moonacre Manor and the town around it—and Maria is determined to learn about it, change it, and give her own life story a happy ending. But what can one solitary girl do?
Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse is one of my favorite children’s books. Set in England’s West Country sometime in the 19th century, the book is a charming and original fairy tale by an author who was, in her day, a beloved novelist.
Newly-orphaned Maria Merriwether and her governess, Miss Heliotrope, must leave London to live with Maria’s uncle, Sir Benjamin, at the family estate of Moonacre Manor. Maria immediately falls in love with Moonacre, its charming village, and the small, idyllic valley in which they lie.
But all is not well at Moonacre. There is a long-standing feud between the Merriwethers and the fishermen who dwell in a castle in the pinewood, poaching and stealing livestock from manor and village alike. Can Maria, aided by her childhood friend Robin and the manor’s wise animals, reform the castle-dwellers, reunite not one but two pairs of star-crossed lovers, and bring peace back to Moonacre Valley?
It’s hard to put into words just why I love this book so much. The fantasy elements, such as the titular little white horse and the ghost of Maria’s ancestor Sir Wrolf, are never intrusive; they appear in glimpses and hints only. The characters are individual, whimsically eccentric, and appealing – even the villain of the piece has some redeeming characteristics. Goudge never overdoes either the humor or the whimsy. The result is a beautiful, magical gem of a story, full of the redemptive power of love and common sense.
In fact, the only thing that detracts from my enjoyment of The Little White Horse is the descriptive epithet Goudge gives to the villain, Cocque du Noir (also Coeur de Noir) and his henchmen: They are the Black Men, a term which describes not their skin but their hearts, hair, clothing, and even the sails of their fishing boats. Given when and where Goudge was writing – mid-20th-century England – it’s not entirely surprising that she didn’t realize the racial overtones the term “Black Men” could have for an American audience. As a child, I completely missed this connotation; I understood the term only in the sense that Goudge intended it. Yet the linkage of “black” with “bad”, though common enough in Western literature and culture, displays a racial insensitivity which I now find troubling. It’s something today’s parents may want to discuss with their children.
ETA (6/11/2020): The editors of the Lion Children’s Books editions (2011) have changed the nomenclature: they are now the Men of the Dark Woods. If you are reading aloud from another, older edition, you could replace the problematic term “Black Men” with “Men of the Dark Woods.”
Should you avoid the book on this account? Absolutely not. There is a lot to love about this charming book, from the wonderfully drawn characters to the lovingly described setting. (As a child, I longed for a tower room like Maria’s at Moonacre. To be honest, I still do.) There’s just the right amount of danger and suspense, perfectly balanced by marvelous touches of humor and the hints of magic that overlay the entire novel like the glitter of fairy dust. If you somehow missed A Little White Horse in your childhood, you owe it to yourself to read it now.
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Lion Children’s Books issued a hardcover edition in 2011 with all the original illustrations by C. Walter Hodges, which are charming and perfectly suited to the book. Sadly, the Dell paperback editions that I have seen do not contain illustrations, but I haven’t seen the Lion paperback.
J. K. Rowling said of this book, ‘The Little White Horse was my favourite childhood book. I absolutely adored it. It had a cracking plot. It was scary and romantic in parts and had a feisty heroine.’ – quoted in The Bookseller, 1998/09/11