“Five O’clock Charlie” (Simon and Schuster, 1962) is one of the most beloved children’s books by prolific American author Marguerite Henry (1902 – 1997). The story was not a new one to avid Henry readers. A version appeared in “Album of Horses” in 1951 under the chapter entitled “The Routine of Happiness”, but this version was simplified and twisted around to make it more accessible to younger readers.
“Five O’clock Charlie” has been reprinted many times. To find a first edition hardback is a treasure indeed.
There were some changes made between the original version and what appeared eleven years later in “Five O’clock Charlie”. In the original version, Charlie was grey and a mill horse. His job was to walk around and around a millstone as it crushed wheat into flour. When he was retired to pasture, he hated it – until he found a tree he could walk around during the hours he normally would have worked. In this way, he happily spent his retirement.
Now that Charlie got a book all to himself, he turned into a chestnut with a blonde mane and tail. He also had a wide blaze and four neat white socks. His job had also changed from turning a millstone to pulling a cart for his farmer owner, Mr. Spinks. At five o’clock every day for over twenty years, Charlie and Mr. Spinks would rush to the pub — for apple pie. This is a children’s book, remember.
But then Charlie is retired at the grand old age of 28. Charlie is not happy about it — mostly because he couldn’t get any more pie.
Although Henry often wove real details into her stories, such was not the case with “Five O’clock Charlie”. This was a pure fabrication of her imagination, based on a story she heard about an old grey English mill horse that walked in circles all of his life in retirement just as he had done when he powered a millstone.
This story has all of Henry’s storytelling charm. She is best at portraying the inner lives of animals. She also adds just enough detail without putting you to sleep.
However, the best part of “Five O’clock Charlie” are the wonderful illustrations by the late great Wesley Dennis (1903 – 1966), who also was featured in a chapter on polo ponies in “Album of Horses”. Dennis and Henry collaborated on some of Henry’s most famous books, including the classic “Misty of Chincoteague” (1947).
Dennis was not the best artist of people because they all tended to look alike. But his real forte lay in portraying incredibly realistic yet charismatic animals. Charlie has almost human facial expressions, yet Dennis has not strayed from equine anatomy in order to achieve this affect.
Although a children’s book, “Five O’clock Charlie” will appeal to horse lovers of all ages and even to those facing retirement.