No, there isn’t much action in this slim book – essentially, a boy stands around in a nasty, cold, muddy street holding a horse for a gentleman who is conducting some business nearby. Some dubious types come around, wanting to buy (or steal, more likely) the horse from the boy, some nice stolid farmers admire the horse, and then some soldiers come by and tell the boy that this horse belongs to famous highway robber Dick Turpin. The boy must keep holding the horse until Dick Turpin comes back, at which point the soldiers will arrest the famous highwayman.
Ah, but it’s the way the story is told that had me racing through the entire book during one short lunch break. The young street urchin, shoeless and homeless, tells his own story (to someone whose identity we learn at the end) in spunky, straightforward, unsentimental terms. It begins “There are good things and bad things about being small. You wouldn’t know about that, though, would you, sir? Fine, tall gentleman like yourself. But it’s true.” The boy goes on to recount how his story, relating (as we find out) how he came by this magnificent horse, the famous Black Bess of legend, and why he is trying to sell her to his (quite dubious) audience.
The tone is breezy, describing the events of the story so vividly that the lack of action won’t be noticeable to most readers. The boy’s upbeat narration (in direct opposition to his miserable circumstances) is accompanied by detailed, slightly loopy illustrations depicting a raggedy boy, a glorious horse, and various eccentric characters (I almost said “Dickensian” but of course this story takes place in the 1700s, Turpin’s century).
Full of wry humor and a steadily building tension (will those two ruffians steal the horse? Will Turpin get away? Will the boy ever be warm again? Is the boy's story even true?), this book is a winner. Recommended for grades 4 – 6, including reluctant readers (this is easy to read and a mere 118 pages).