Justin Morgan Had a Horse Analysis
by Marguerite Henry

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Justin Morgan Had a Horse Analysis

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

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Because Justin Morgan Had a Horse is based in fact, the novel contains a healthy dollop of fictionalized biography. Singing master Justin Morgan, apprentice Joel Goss (and his harsh, penny-pinching father), sawyer and innkeeper Thomas Chase, President James Monroe, and the mongrel stallion Little Bub (later known as “the Morgan horse”) are rooted in history. Yankee stubbornness, Vermont pride, American pluck, frontier self-reliance, big-city foppishness, and British high-handedness add spice to Henry’s approach to American history. Against the background of post-revolutionary war America, Joel Goss comes of age and finds his own set of values.

Although life in the United States has changed markedly in the centuries since Joel and Little Bub lived, the novel’s treatment of the challenges faced by young people remains timeless. One such challenge involves the need for respect and approval. In search of unconditional love and acceptance, both young people and adults often seek the companionship of animals; gentling and mastering a horse gives Joel a much-needed dose of self-esteem, especially in the face of his father’s continuing harshness and disapproval. Because Little Bub sets the standard for a new breed, and because Joel sensed the colt’s potential when others scoffed at the runt, Joel experiences further affirmation from adults when his judgment proves superior to that of many experienced farmers and horse breeders.

In addition to the public praise that Joel gains as a result of his work with Little Bub, he seeks and receives a different sort of private acceptance: Before Joel recognizes Little Bub’s physical potential, Justin Morgan recognizes Joel’s mental and emotional potential. The gentle, elderly schoolmaster chooses Joel to accompany him on a summer-long errand not only because he trusts the boy and needs someone reliable to help him on the road but also because he knows that the sensitive, scholarly Joel needs time away from the demands of a harsh, intolerant, anti-intellectual father. Morgan nurtured Joel’s mind and spirit; Thomas Chase nurtured his self-esteem and his yearning for practical knowledge. Henry portrays Chase as longing for a son of his own and as delighted with the hidden qualities that he can sense in the lanky, “runty” Joel; the combined influence of Morgan and Chase counteracts the acidic, materialistic negativity of Joel’s father and further supports the theme of the search for acceptance.

Another theme of the novel, the individual in conflict with some facet of his environment, comes across clearly in Joel’s daily life. Vermont in the late 1790’s surrounds Joel with purely physical challenges: sawing...

(The entire section is 648 words.)