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The First Animal Rights Book...
on May 3, 2002
Because it is a well-known classic and a children's perennial favorite, many people do not realize that "Black Beauty" is an impassioned plea for animal rights, written at a time when such a notion was dismissed as ridiculous. And because it is what it is, sensitive children may need a parent to explain that, thankfully, most of the abuses described in the book are long gone, thanks in part to crusaders like Anna Sewell.
In a story that takes place in 19th century England, a gorgeous glossy black colt, who comes to be known as Black Beauty, is born into a life of comfort and kindness. His life is a kind of horsey paradise, until the fortunes of his owners turn...and Black Beauty is sold.
Sold to a cruel owner as a cab horse, Beauty is now treated as so many hapless animals were in his day...he is virtually tortured. He is in constant pain. His knees are sore. He is made to wear a "check rein," a device that no longer exists, but which scares me to this day because of the impression its description made upon me as a child. It was a type of rein that forced the horse to keep his head up extremely high at an unnatural angle, the more to look "elegant." The pain that this rein inflicts upon Beauty is heartbreaking, and it did indeed break my heart to read it.
Along the way, Beauty meets other horses, and keeps a lifelong friend, Ginger, who also suffers. Everything comes out alright in the end, in a story that is so tender and yet meaningful at the same time, that it is a shame it is relegated by reputation to the backwaters of so-called "children's literature." It was pure muckracking, in the style of the great American muckrakers who came shortly thereafter. Will a child realize this? It's hard to know, but I know that as a child I was simply haunted by the described cruelty to this horse. And of course heartened by the ending. But I have to say that, many decades later, some of the cruelty in this book still upsets me.
Therefore, I recommend the book with a caveat: If you have a particularly sensitive or thoughtful child, please warn him or her that Black Beauty is mistreated in the story, but that because of the book, and others like it, such mistreatment of animals no longer exists. And then let your child enjoy the sheer wealth of detail in what really is, in the end, a beautiful story.