Earlier this week the forecast called for a day of cool rain in our area. My husband went out to cut a small field near the house, to encourage further growth of the pasture forages recently planted there. The cutting yielded more than he expected, so he raked it to make dry hay. Well, with one equipment failure after another and the rain moving quickly, we ended up piling the sweet-smelling grasses loose onto trailers, pulling it back to the barn with every implement we could find, and pitching it off by hand. We pressed three generations into service, and even our dear newly-married neighbors. It was a race against the rising breezes and the gathering clouds in the west, but we pulled the last of that valuable fodder under cover with an hour or two to spare.

Not every day in farming turns out so well, but I’ve always thought of haymaking as a happy rush. The older children were a great help, while the younger ones discovered the joy of sliding down the big mounds of loose hay. We finally lost their valuable assistance when they realized that Grammy had cold drinks and cookies waiting in the house. As I turned down the road to the barn with another loaded wagon and passed my father hauling an empty one back to the field, I thought of a book so beloved that most of my family can quote it by heart: Five O’Clock Charlie, written by Marguerite Henry and illustrated by Wesley Dennis.

This award-winning pair is best known for collaborating on Misty of Chincoteague, King of the Wind, Brighty of the Grand Canyon and other classic chapter books that every young equestrian has read. Here they showcase a different talent – and one that I wish they had developed further – for Five O’Clock Charlie is a picture book; and in all my horse-crazy youth I had never heard of this treasure.

Charlie is a very old English workhorse who has earned his retirement in a quiet pasture all to himself. But after a life full of activity, retirement doesn’t suit him.

He felt so useless. He missed the busyness of the old days—the plowing and planting, the logging and hauling, the raking and reaping. And he had nowhere at all to go. Not to the millhouse to grind the grain. Nor to the greengrocer’s to deliver parsnips and peas and potatoes. Nor to the blacksmith for a new set of shoes. Not even to the old Boar’s Head Inn on Cowcross Road.

Charlie fondly remembers ending each working day at the sound of the five o’clock bell, when his master Mister Spinks would drive him to the local inn for tea. Unbeknownst to Mister Spinks, clever old Charlie would sneak away from the hitching rail to the kitchen window, where Birdie the cook always saved one of her famous apple tarts for him. Everyone thereabouts knew of the daily ritual, except for Mister Spinks.

Charlie laments his current stagnation, until one day his long-practiced routine reminds him that it must be nearly five o’clock, and teatime for the working folk. In a fit of mischievous independence, he jumps the fence and trots rather magnificently into town on his own. He is warmly welcomed by the people, and Birdie rewards him with his customary tart. So Charlie returns every day thereafter, and quickly makes himself indispensable as the new ringer of the five o’clock bell. When Mister Spinks catches on, he wisely pretends not to notice a thing.

This charming story is told with all of Henry’s knack for description, and a delightful mix of colored paintings and pencil sketches by Dennis. The descriptions of pre-industrial rural life are natural and beautiful, full of rhythm and meaning. Charlie’s winsome relationships with both Birdie and his master are playful and sweet, but it is the affectionate respect for the old workhorse that makes this story more than quaint nostalgia.

Themes of honorable labor, daily routines, and simple comforts grace this happy tale. But more than that, it celebrates a community working together, and it accords the dignity due to age and accomplishment that is too often forgotten in modern societies. Charlie is still a valuable member of his circle, with something to contribute and joy to share.

Five O’Clock Charlie is a trifle longer and more layered than more modern picture books. It’s a perfect read-aloud, but might be a stretch for very young or antsy listeners. A preschooler or a patient toddler would enjoy it, as would a child in the primary grades. I have read this book aloud so many times that, as we have recently discovered, I can quote it from memory whenever I find myself pulling a makeshift hayrick down the farm lane. And I must admit: the prospect of an apple tart – or one of Grammy’s cookies – does sound mighty fine at a moment like that.

If you liked this book, you might also enjoy: Bonny’s Big Day by James Herriot and illustrated by Ruth Brown

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