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Mending Horses: Image Gallery

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Mending Horses: Frequently Asked Questions

From John J. Jennings, Theatrical and Circus Life; or Secrets of the Stage, Green-Room and Sawdust Arena

From John J. Jennings, Theatrical and Circus Life; or Secrets of the Stage, Green-Room and Sawdust Arena

Where did you get the idea for Daniel joining a circus?

When I started writing A Difficult Boy, I didn’t have a sequel in mind. But as I was editing the first book, I real­ized that Daniel’s story really wasn’t finished. I kept wondering what he would do and how he would manage in the world, especially since he’d spent most of his life being told what to do. So I thought he might look for Mr. Stocking, the peddler from the first book, for advice. Because Daniel is a natural horse whisperer, I knew he would want to do something with horses, and I at first thought he might get involved with the military, in the cavalry service, but that didn’t feel right to me. So I began thinking about what other jobs might involve horses, and the circus seemed like a natural fit. It also provided lots of opportunities to create interesting characters and situa­tions.

Museum of the Early American Circus, Somers, NY

Museum of the Early American Circus, Somers, NY

How did you do the research for Mending Horses?

Some of the background for “Mending Horses” came from work that I did as a historical interpreter at Old Sturbridge Village, which is a living history museum in Massachusetts. There, I learned about daily life of people in 19th-century New England. But working at OSV didn’t teach me about early 19th century circuses, so I did a lot of research at the Museum of the Early American Circus in Somers, New York. They have circus post­ers, account books and journals, publications, and more. The website of the Circus Historical Society was another excellent resource. Most important of all were the works of Stuart Thayer (1926-2009), who wrote wonderful books and articles about pre-Civil War American circuses.

From William Guild, A Chart and Description of the Boston and Worcester and Western Railroads

From William Guild, A Chart and Description of the Boston and Worcester and Western Railroads

I also had to do a lot of research about the Irish immigrants living and working in New England mill towns and work­ing on the railroad. Brian C. Mitchell’s The Paddy Camps: The Irish of Lowell, 1821-1861 was a wonderful resource for some of that information.

I learned about the Western Rail Road from newspaper accounts of the time period, papers and records of the Western Rail Road, and from Dennis Picard, Director of Storrowton Village, who has done considerable research on Irish railroad workers in 19th-century New England.

To learn more about the horse training elements of the story, I attended demonstrations by horse trainers like Monty Roberts, read lots of books about horse whispering, and had the opportunity to observe a young woman who retrains abused horses. I also read about 19th-century horse trainers like John Rarey, who was known for his humane methods of training.

Is Mending Horses based on real people, places, or events?

With the exception of Farmington, Massachusetts, and Chauncey, Connecticut, all the towns and villages mentioned in the book are real places. All of the people in the story are fictitious, except for the landlord at the inn in Springfield toward the end of book. There really was a Jeremy Warriner, whose inn was famous for hospitality and good food.

One event that actually occurred was the arrival of the Western Rail Road in Springfield, which happened on October 1, 1839—perfect timing for my story. I’d known that the railroad was under construction in the late 1830s and early 1840s, but it wasn’t until I’d already chosen the date for my story and decided to make Hugh a railroad worker that I learned of the October 1 event, which fit in perfectly.

dan rice & learned pigWhile Mr. Chamberlain’s traveling show is fictitious, the stunts that his players perform are based on circuses of the time period. James “Grizzly” Adams (1812-1860), Dan Rice (1823-1900) and Joe Pentland (1816-1873) were just a few of the real-life performers who provided the ideas for my characters and their performances.

How were circuses in the 1830s different from circuses today?

In the 1830s, circuses were just beginning to evolve into their present form. At first, circuses of the 18th century were primarily exhibitions of skilled horseback riding, and didn’t tend to travel. Traveling acrobats, magicians, singers, and jugglers generally performed separately from such shows. Menageries also tended to be distinct entities; at first they were more like traveling zoos than collections of performing animals. By the late 18th century, circuses had begun to incorporate non-equestrian performers. By the 1830s, show managers were bringing together menageries, equestrian acts, acrobats, comedians, and singers into large traveling shows. Shows might include things we don’t normally associate with circuses today, such as opera singers, displays of artwork, dramatic performances, or panoramas of historic events. Traveling tradesmen, peddlers, teachers, exhibitors, lecturers, and performers—what we might today think of as “sideshows”—often followed a circus in order to take advantage of the potential customers drawn by the larger show.

Courtesy of the Springfield History Museums

Courtesy of the Springfield History Museums

Why is Mr. Chamberlain’s show called a museum instead of a circus?

In many New England towns in the 1830s, there were laws that either prohibited traveling performers, or levied heavy licensing fees. Shows like Mr. Chamberlain’s Peripatetic Museum sometimes might call themselves an “exhibition” or a “museum,” or might emphasize the menagerie portion of the show in order to evade those laws. In spite of such laws, newspapers, diaries, and other records show that acrobats, menageries, trick riders, and other traveling entertainers roamed throughout New England. Advertisements for such shows often went to great lengths to assure audiences that programs would be educational, morally uplifting, and “chaste.”

Names for circuses could get pretty creative and elaborate. Here are a few actual show names from the 19th century:

  • The Hippozoonomadon and Athelolypmimanthem
  • Yankee Robinson’s Colossal Moral Exhibition with Egyptian Wallapuss
  • L.B. Lent’s Universal Living Exposition, Metropolitan Museum, Mastadon Menagerie, Hemispheric Hippozoonomadon, Cosmographic Caravan, Equescurriculum, Great New York Circus and Monster Musical Brigade
  • P.T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie, Hippodrome, Polytechnic Institute & International Zoological Garden
  • John Robinson’s Great World’s Exposition, Museum, Aquarium, Animal Conservatory & Strictly Moral Circus
  • W.W. Cole’s New Colossal Shows, Consolidated Three Ring Circus, Menagerie, Gallery of Wax Statuary, Russian Roller Skaters, Elevated Stage, Encyclopedia and Races
  • J. Taylor’s Great American Double Circus, Huge World’s Museum, Caravan, Hippodrome, Menagerie and Congress of Wild and Living Animals

Was it common to sell a child whom a parent didn’t want?

Well, technically it wasn’t legal to sell a child in New England in the 1830s. However, a parent could apprentice a child to a craftsperson or farmer, in effect giving the master under the apprenticeship agreement nearly complete control over the child. This arrangement was also referred to as an indenture, hence such children were sometimes called indentured servants. So when Mr. Stocking offers to “buy” Billy from Hugh Fogarty, he’s not literally buying the child, but offering to take Billy on as an apprentice or indentured servant. Such arrangements might happen if a parent were too impoverished to take care of his or her children. Parents also apprenticed their children in order to get them trained for a particular trade or craft. A parent might also hire a child out as a worker for day wages–any pay the child received would legally belong to the child’s parent or guardian.

Where did Mr. Stocking get the things he sold from his wagon?

In the 1830s, there were a lot of manufacturers of tinware in Connecticut, and they would sell their products through peddlers who traveled across the country. Peddlers also might add things like brooms, sewing supplies, patent medicines, books, and dozens of other products to their wares, which they might obtain by trading with storekeepers or wholesalers. In Mending Horses, Mr. Stocking’s cousin Sophie is married to a man who makes tinware and supplies Mr. Stocking with many of the goods he sells. Like other peddlers, Mr. Stocking also carries dozens of other products in addition to tinware.

Who are the people on the cover?

The cover was created by artist Richard Tuschman. A young actor/model posed for Daniel. Billy was played by the child of one of the artist’s friends. They did a photo shoot in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and the artist developed the cover based on the photos from that shoot. The horse is named Lumpy, and according to the artist, “The biggest challenge was that Lumpy just wanted to eat the grass.”

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A Difficult Boy: Bibliography

Click on the cover to purchase your copy.


Carson, Gerald. Country Stores in Early New England. Sturbridge, Massachusetts: Old Sturbridge Village, 1955.

Larkin, Jack. The Reshaping of Everyday Life, 1790-1840. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988.

Rorabaugh, W. J. The Craft Apprentice: From Franklin to the Machine Age in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.


Benes, Peter, editor. Itinerancy in New England and New York. Boston University: Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife Annual Proceedings, 1984.

Wright, Richardson. Hawkers & Walkers in Early America. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1927.


Bowker, Nancy. John Rarey: Horse Tamer. London: J.A. Allen, 1996.

Brown, Sara Lowe. Rarey: The Horse’s Master and Friend. Columbus, Ohio: The F.J. Heer Printing Co., 1916.

Rarey, John S. The Modern Art of Taming Wild Horses. (reprint) Watertown, Minnesota: Nath Thoroughbreds, 1998.


Ignatiev, Noel. How the Irish Became White. New York: Routledge, 1995.

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Mending Horses

mh cover final
Mending Horses
by M.P. Barker

(A sequel to A Difficult Boy)

Holiday House, 2014
ISBN: 978-0823429486

Get a sneak preview! Read the first two chapters here.

Click here to order your copy today!

Mending Horses

Daniel Linnehan is an indentured servant no more. He has his papers, his beloved horse, Ivy, and a new direction in life. But an Irish teenager, wearing fine clothes and riding an even finer horse, is asking for trouble.

After a terrible misunderstanding leaves Daniel beaten, the peddler Jonathan Stocking takes Daniel under his wing. But Billy, another Irish youngster traveling with Mr. Stocking, is not thrilled that the two must work together, first as peddlers on the road and then in a traveling circus where Daniel heals and trains the skittish circus ponies and Billy charms audiences with a singing voice from heaven.

All too soon, past secrets catch up with them, bringing danger and heartache.

This deeply moving sequel to A Difficult Boy weaves an indelible piece of historical fiction into a gripping adventure that explores themes of patience, courage, kindness, and the true meaning of family.

Click on the following links for more information:

Frequently Asked Questions
Awards and honors
Book group discussion guide
Educator’s Guide Based on Common Core Curriculum Standards
Helpful websites
Music from the book
Gallery of Images related to the book


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A Difficult Boy: Frequently Asked Questions


Click on the cover to order your copy.

How long did it take you to write A Difficult Boy?

It took about ten years from the day I wrote the first scene to the day I had the published book in my hand, but the book went through at least five drafts in that time, and I didn’t write all day every day (I had to work for a living, too!). The first draft took about two years to write, and it was about 700 pages long–about as big as a telephone book! Well, of course, that was much too big, so it took me about two more years to whittle that down to a mere 500 pages. The next two drafts brought it down to about 350 pages. Meanwhile, I was trying to find an agent or a publisher –that took even longer than writing the book! After Holiday House bought the book, I worked with Regina Griffin and Leanna Petronella, my editors there, to tighten the story up some more, and took another 50 or so pages off it. Whew!

Is the story based on historical events? Were Ethan and Daniel real people?

BALL-01-0011-for-webNo. Both the story and the setting are fictional. I couldn’t find a real town that was exactly the way I imagined Farmington, so I invented a town on the western edge of Hampden County, Massachusetts, near the Farmington River.

Although Ethan isn’t a real person, his story was inspired by the document at left, which I discovered in the Connecticut Valley Historical Museum’s archives. The document was a bill that a man sent to an indentured boy’s mother, charging her for the cost of catching the boy when he ran away. That got me thinking: What kind of man was that master? Why did the boy run away? What would happen if his mother couldn’t pay the bill?

Before I knew it, the characters of Mr. Lyman and Ethan began to take shape. After that, Daniel made his appearance. Irish immigrants like Daniel came to New England in large numbers in the 1820s and 1830s to build canals and mills. So I used that information to help me imagine why Daniel’s family might have come from Ireland.

Jonathan Stocking, the peddler, was based on research I did at Old Sturbridge Village about peddlers in New England. I’d originally intended Mr. Stocking to make a very brief appearance, but he insisted on developing into a more prominent character. He also insisted on being quite different from the character I’d originally intended. I’d envisioned a tall, thin fellow in his twenties as the peddler. But when I started writing the scene, Mr. Stocking turned into a short, round, older man with a checkered past and a variety of talents. Mr. Stocking continued to pester me to tell his story, so watch for more adventures involving Mr. Stocking and Daniel in my next book, Mending Horses.

How did you research the period?

My training at Old Sturbridge Village involved learning about almost every detail of life in a New England town of the 1830s. When I worked there, I did many of the chores Ethan and Daniel do, like milking cows, mucking out the barn, planting crops, turning the manure pile, etc. So I used that experience when I described the way things looked and sounded and felt and smelled in the story (especially the smells!).


Me during my Old Sturbridge Village days

At Sturbridge Village, I also learned about the opinions and beliefs of people from the time period. It was interesting to see the ways in which people have changed since then—and the ways they haven’t!

Sturbridge Village has a fabulous research library, which provided a wealth of information. I also did a lot of research at the Connecticut Valley Historical Museum and Mystic Seaport Museum . I searched through reference books, old newspapers, indenture agreements, account books, and diaries and reminiscences of people who’d lived in the time period. For example, when Mr. Pease, the hired man, tells anti-Irish stories to aggravate Daniel, I adapted Mr. Pease’s tales from some jokes that were published in newspapers from the 1830s.

I also relied on several former co-workers from the Village for advice and fact-checking. I’m especially grateful to Dennis Picard, Director of Storrowton Village, for going over the manuscript to root out any historically inaccurate situations. He’s an amazing guy—I swear he has a photographic memory!

Do you speak Irish (Gaelic)?

No. I did consider learning Irish, but it’s such a complicated language that I found the prospect a bit intimidating. So I called on a couple of experts to help me out. Thomas Moriarty, a professor from Elms College (my alma mater), and George Bresnahan graciously translated all the Irish bits for me.

How were you able to make the details of riding so vivid? Are you a horse lover? Do you own a horse? Do you ride?

horsesmallI’ve loved horses ever since I was a kid. I read all Walter Farley’s Black Stallion books, and probably drove my mom crazy cutting pictures of horses out of magazines and newspapers. But my family couldn’t afford a horse or riding lessons, so I didn’t get the chance to learn to ride until I was in my twenties. Although I never owned a horse, I took riding lessons for several years, and helped take care of a couple of horses at the stable where I took my lessons. I don’t know that I was ever much good, but I had fun!

The best teacher I had was a red-haired girl named Kathy, who taught me to ride much the same way that Daniel teaches Ethan. No, we didn’t ride the horse together the way Ethan and Daniel do in the book, but Kathy described how to sit in the saddle and hold my posture just the way Daniel does, and she showed me how to get a feel for the horse’s motion. She also recommended a book called Centered Riding by Sally Swift, which was a real eye-opener. From that point, everything just started to click for me and my riding improved immensely.

Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to ride for several years. But I hope I will be able to do it again someday!

Is Ivy based on a real horse you either owned or rode?

Ivy is based on a combination of real horses I’ve observed and fictitious ones that I’ve read about. When I took riding lessons, there was a girl at the stable who had taken care of one of the stable horses for so long that the two of them had formed a very special bond. She would run around the pasture and play with this horse sort of the way Daniel plays with Ivy in the book–although Daniel and Ivy play a bit rougher!

gilsmallWhen I worked at Old Sturbridge Village, I became friends with a very special man named Gil Barons, who drove a horse and carriage around the village. Gil was in his seventies when I met him. He’d been around horses all his life, and told me lots of stories about the horses he’d known. He had a very special bond with his horse Monty, whom he’d owned for more than twenty-five years. I’m sure I picked up a lot just watching Gil and Monty work together.

Who are the two boys on the cover?

Well, that’s an unsolved mystery! Marc Tauss, who created the cover, used a photo that he found in an antique store. There was nothing to identify the boys in the photo, which probably dates from the late 1800s. He collaged the picture with a 19th-century account book and a horse silhouette to create the stunning cover image. (To see more of Marc’s work, check out his web page at http://www.marctauss.com/)

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About the Books

mh cover final
Mending Horses
by M. P. Barker

(Holiday House, 2014)
ISBN: 978-0823429486
Click here to order your copy
Click on the cover for more information

Three outcasts – an Irish orphan, a roving peddler, and a child fleeing an abusive father – mend each other’s broken lives as they heal a circus’s mistreated horses.
2015 Banks Street College of Education “Best Children’s Books” list
 2014 Kirkus Prize nominee
2015 Booklist Top 10 Historical Fiction for Youth
2014 VOYA “Top Shelf” Reading List



COVERWITHSTICKER-for-webA Difficult Boy
by M.P. Barker

(Holiday House, 2008)
Hardcover ISBN: 978-0823420865
Paperback ISBN:  978-0823422449
Also available in e-book format.
Click here to order your copy.
Click on the cover for more information.

Their shared love for a horse brings together two indentured servants, who must overcome their differences to outwit their master and win their freedom.

2010-2011 William Allen White Award Master List
2008 International Reading Association Notable Book for a Global Society
2003 PEN New England Children’s Book Caucus Discovery Award winner


sis-prov-pic-for-web140 Years of Providential Caring: The Sisters of Providence of Holyoke, Massachusetts
by Tom Shea, Suzanne Strempek Shea, and Michele P. Barker

(Sisters of Providence, 2012)
ISBN: 978-0-9672840-1-9
Click here for purchasing information
Click on the cover for more information.

Co-authored with Tom Shea and Suzanne Strempek Shea. Written in celebration of the 140th anniversary of the Sisters’ arrival in Holyoke and the 120th anniversary of their incorporation as a congregation of the Springfield, Massachusetts, diocese, this book explores the history of a group of extraordinary women, from their roots in Montreal to the present.


chicopee-cover-for-webImages of America: Chicopee
by Michele Plourde-Barker

(Arcadia Publishing, 1998)
ISBN: 978-0738590066
Click here to order your copy.
Click on the cover for more information.

A pictorial history of a Western Massachusetts industrial community from its first settlement in the 1660s to the post-World War II era, featuring more than 200 vintage images.


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