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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn E. Cook

Great Books Countdown — Number Six

Brighty of the Grand Canyon


Marguerite Henry

A shaggy young burro lay asleep in the gray dust of the canyon trail. Except for the slow heaving of his sides and an occasional flick of an ear, he seemed part of the dust and the ageless limestone that rose in great towering battlements behind him. . .

When I was in third grade, my teacher was Mrs. Butte. She loved to read aloud to us kids. Every day after lunch, she took the current book off her desk and picked up at the next chapter. Her voice was loaded with expression, wonderful to listen to. That year, we heard a number of fine stories, but Brighty of the Grand Canyon was one of my favorites.

Brighty is a burro, brought into the canyon by two explorers who apparently used him for a pack animal. Somehow, he becomes free of them, perhaps after the men drown in the swollen Colorado River. No one knows for certain. He goes off on his own, roams the canyon, part tame, part wild.

He isn’t adverse to taking up with people, especially those like Uncle Jim or Old-Timer, who feed him flapjacks and treat him kindly. Old-Timer gives the burro his name, after Bright Angel Creek, one of the places he likes to visit. Then Old-Timer is murdered by an outlaw and the sheriff enlists Brighty in an attempt to catch the killer. Along the way, Brighty has scores of adventures, seeing animal friends, being attacked by a mountain lion, traveling the rim of the canyon. He even meets President Teddy Roosevelt and his son, who are at the canyon for a hunting trip.

This saga is based on true events. There really was a burro named Brighty who lived in the Grand Canyon. He was first seen there in the 1890s and was still around thirty years later. And yes, Theodore Roosevelt was genuinely one of his admirers.

Brighty’s tale was written by Marguerite Henry. Born in 1902, her father was a publisher, which surely helped point her towards a career as an author. When very young, she contracted rheumatic fever and was unable to attend school. To pass the months of restricted activity, she read entire shelves of books. Then her father presented her with a fancy writing desk. That extended her love of reading into a love of writing. At age eleven, she sold her first story to a magazine. Her pay was all of $12, a huge sum for that day.

Although Marguerite wanted to become a writer, she attended a college with the plan to teach English in public school. That idea went by the wayside when she got married. After that, she focused on her writing and sold articles to popular magazines — The Saturday Evening Post and Readers’ Digest. She was off to a good start.

Then she heard a story about a brother and sister in Finland and this was the spark for her first children’s book. Reviews and sales were positive. From that day forward, writing for children was her genre. Since she was an animal lover, the stories usually centered on horses, ponies, or in Brighty’s case, a burro. Chapter books flowed from her typewriter, Justin Morgan Had a Horse (1946), Misty of Chincoteague (1947), King of the Wind (1948), winner of the Newberry Award, and Brighty of the Grand Canyon (1953), honored in 1956 with the William Allen White Children’s Book Award.

Back in the day, I read all four of these and was enthralled. The plots were page-turners, the characters relatable, and the writing colorful. They’re still in print and are truly fine reads for both kids and grown-ups.

In all, Marguerite wrote 58 novels and picture books. Her last work was Brown Sunshine of Sawdust Valley, published in 1996 when she was 94 years old. Amazing woman. In her later years, Marguerite received adoring letters from children all over the world, telling of their enthusiasm for her marvelous tales.

Canyon winds still blow restless. And the Colorado River still cuts its way, depth upon depth, through the mile-high walls. And from the far corners of the world men come to explore this open book of the earth’s crust. Some are scientists and others artists, and some are troubled people who come to find themselves, to drop their worries into the great chasm. . .

Especially on moonlit nights a shaggy little form can be seen flirting along the ledges, a thin swirl of dust rising behind him. Some say it is nothing but moonbeams caught up in a cloud. But the older guides swear it is trail dust out of the past, kicked up by Brighty himself, the roving spirit of the Grand Canyon — forever wild, forever free.

Brighty of the Grand Canyon by Marguerite Henry, illustrations by Wesley Dennis

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