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 Daniel’s story 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 an Army cavalry unit, but that didn’t feel right to me. 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.
Some of the background for Mending Horses came from work that I did as a costumed historical interpreter at Old Sturbridge Village, a living history museum in Massachusetts. There, I learned about the 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.
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, former Director of Storrowton Village in West Springfield, Massachusetts, 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.
With the exception of Farmington, Massachusetts, and Chauncey, Connecticut, all the towns and villages mentioned in the book are real places. 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 Fogarty a railroad worker that I learned of the October 1 event, which fit in perfectly.
While 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.
In the 1830s, circuses were just beginning to evolve into their present form. 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 began 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.
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 called 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
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, giving the master nearly complete control over the child under the apprenticeship agreement. This arrangement was also referred to as an indenture; hence such children were sometimes called indentured servants.
When Mr. Stocking offers to “buy” Billy from Hugh Fogarty, he’s not literally buying Hugh’s child, but offering to take Billy on as an apprentice or indentured servant. Such arrangements might happen if parents were too impoverished to take care of their children. Parents also apprenticed their children to get them trained for a 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.
In the 1830s, manufacturers of tinware in Connecticut would sell products through peddlers who traveled across the country. Peddlers 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.
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.”
You can find some of the music on the Internet. Here’s a list to get you started:
Near the beginning of the book, Billy sings a lullaby to Daniel after Mr. Stocking rescues him. Although the song isn’t named in the book, I imagine that it is “Táimse im Chodladh” (“I Am Sleeping, Do Not Wake Me”). Ciara Walton sings a lovely version.
I’ve heard several versions of “Deirdre’s Lament,” the song that Hugh hears Billy singing at the circus. Some are set to new music rather than the traditional tune. I found two versions on the Internet; I’m not sure whether they are traditional versions, or are modern adaptations, but they’re still beautiful. There’s one by Trio Nocturna and one by Heather Alexander.
I couldn’t find a recording of “The Last Link is Broken” (the song that Augusta taught to Billy, and that Liam hears Augusta singing) on the Internet, but you can find the lyrics online at the Library of Congress’s “America Singing” collection.
Edward Bunting’s 1840 Ancient Music of Ireland is a great resource if you’re looking for more traditional Irish tunes.
Mr. Stocking’s songs
Mr. Stocking plays several songs on his fiddle. At the barn dance, he plays “Oft in the Stilly Night.” During the circus, he plays “Flowers of Edinburgh” and “The White Cockade” to accompany the dancing ponies’ routine. Later in the story, he plays “The Minstrel Boy” and “Soldier’s Joy.”
- One of my favorite versions of “Oft in the Stilly Night” is by a band called Celtic Thunder (no, not the same as the pop-Irish band that’s popular today).
- Thomas Moore was the Irish author of “Oft in the Stilly Night” and many other sentimental ballads of the 19th century. You can find some of his music online.
- There are three lovely versions of “The Minstrel Boy” available online:
The Corrs perform a version with fiddle and orchestra
Semyon and Daniel Kobialka perform a haunting version with cello, fiddle, and percussion
There’s a simple, but lovely solo fiddle version on SafeShare.tv
- Rex McGee plays a lively version of “Soldier’s Joy”
- Here’s a version of “Flowers of Edinburgh” played by Duncan Ross Cameron.
- You’ll have to excuse the background noise in this video, but Tartanius Flynn and the Survivors play a lively rendition of “Flowers of Edinburgh” and “The White Cockade” (For more from Tartanius Flynn and the Survivors (without background noise!), check out their YouTube channel)
To find more popular songs from the 1830s, go to the Library of Congress’s “Music for the Nation” website, where you’ll find sheet music for hundreds of songs and a list of greatest hits organized by date.
If you’re looking for more recordings of music from 19th-century New England, I encourage you to check out these two CDs recorded by the musicians of Old Sturbridge Village, which you can order from your favorite music source:
- “Village Green – Music of Old Sturbridge Village”
- “A 19th Century Music Sampler Featuring the Musicians of Old Sturbridge Village”
Although Heidi Talbot’s “Start It All Over Again” is not a 19th-century song, the lyrics make me think of Liam and Augusta, so I’m including a link to it here.
While writing the book, I listened to a lot of music by Celtic artists and American folk musicians to inspire me. Here are some of the musicians on my playlist:
- Aine Minogue and Druidstone
- Alasdair White
- The Battlefield Band (okay, a Scottish rather than an Irish band, but they do some Irish songs, too!)
- The Bothy Band
- Brendan Hendry
- Cherish the Ladies
- The Chieftains
- The Henry Girls
- Bill Jones
- Loreena McKennitt
- Mary Black
- Sally Dworsky
- Susan McKeown
- Heidi Talbot
- Carol Thompson, Celtic harpist
- Jay Ungar and Molly Mason
- Zoe Darrow and the Fiddleheads
Here are a few helpful websites:
- Old Sturbridge Village
- The Library of Congress U.S. History Primary Source Timeline
- Teacher Oz’s list of 19th-century weblinks
- US History Scene
- The Circus Historical Society has a great website with articles on circus history, first-person accounts, and pictures.
- Picturesque Hampden has a description of the Irish shanties that were built in many milltowns, and includes a picture of a shanty in “the Patch,” an early Irish settlement in Holyoke, Massachusetts (scroll down to the bottom of the page to see the picture).
- To see the sort of railroad construction work that Irishmen like Hugh Fogarty did in western Massachusetts during the 1830s and 1840s, check out the Keystone Arches website.
- The Duffy’s Cut Project is dedicated to investigating the mysterious deaths of several Irish railroad workers in Pennsylvania – fascinating historic archeological and forensic research!
- John Solomon Rarey (1827-1866), is often thought of as the original horse whisperer. He was one of the first American horse trainers to promote cruelty-free training methods. You can find an article about him on the American Heritage website.
- To see a modern horse whisperer in action, check out the videos on Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling’s YouTube channel. I like to imagine that Daniel would have used similar training techniques with the six dancing ponies.
Here are a few of the books I used to research Mending Horses:
DAILY LIFE IN NEW ENGLAND
- Grimsted, David. American Mobbing, 1828-1861: Toward Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
- Larkin, Jack. The New England Country Tavern. Sturbridge, Massachusetts: Old Sturbridge Village, 2000.
- Larkin, Jack. The Reshaping of Everyday Life, 1790-1840. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988.
- Larkin, Jack. Where We Lived: Discovering the Places We Once Called Home. Newtown, Connecticut: The Taunton Press, 2009.
- 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.
- Hill, Cherry. How to Think Like a Horse. Storey Publishing, 2006.
- Miller, Robert M., DVM, and Lamb, Rick. The Revolution in Horsemanship and What It Means to Mankind. Guilford, Connecticut: The Lyons Press, 2005.
- Rarey, John S. The Modern Art of Taming Wild Horses. (reprint) Watertown, Minnesota: Nath Thoroughbreds, 1998.
- Roberts, Monty. From My Hands to Yours: Lessons from a Lifetime of Training Championship Horses. Solvang, CA: Monty and Pat Roberts, Inc., 2002.
- Roberts, Monty. The Man Who Listens to Horses. New York: Random House, 1996.
THE IRISH IN NEW ENGLAND
- Ignatiev, Noel. How the Irish Became White. New York: Routledge, 1995.
- Mitchell, Brian C. The Paddy Camps: The Irish of Lowell, 1821-61. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006.
CIRCUSES AND TRAVELING SHOWS
- Barnum, P.T. Struggles and Triumphs; or, Forty Years’ Recollections. Buffalo, NY: The Courier Company, 1875.
- Croft-Cooke, Rupert, and Cotes, Peter. Circus: A World History. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1976.
- Thayer, Stuart. Annals of the American Circus, 1793-1829. Rymack Printing, 1976.
- Thayer, Stuart. Traveling Showmen: The American Circus Before the Civil War. Detroit: Astley & Ricketts, 1997