I had never read this well-known children’s book and was very happy to discover a gem of a story about a handsome well-bred horse named Black Beauty, born to a gentle keeper and broken in with expert kindness. When he is sold to Squire Gordon of Old Birtwick Park in England, Beauty’s mother tells him,
I hope you will fall into good hands, but a horse never knows who may buy him, or who may drive him; it is all a chance for us; but still I say, do your best wherever it is, and keep up your good name.
Beauty is lucky at first. His groom and stable boy are equally kind and understand that the best way to treat horses is to treat them well. But his mother was right. A horse’s future is never certain and before long, Beauty is sold to another landowner and things are not quite as nice. With this owner, and others in his future, Beauty maintains a positive attitude and always does his best, even when he must work long hours and suffer from the ignorance of his riders.
Told from Black Beauty’s point of view, Sewell portrays realistic horse characters and shows how they interact with each other and with people, especially their grooms and stable boys. Throughout the story, she shows the right way to care for horses, and points to the many cruel and foolish practices that were common during the mid- to late 1800s. She is particularly critical of the use of check-reins, which forced horses to raise their heads to unnatural angles, all for show. This practice caused great pain, led to back problems and shortened a horse’s life. Inexperienced riders, drunks, lazy grooms and poor diets and stall conditions made horses miserable, but a little kindness, a gentle stroke and an encouraging word could make all the difference.
Sewell works many important lessons into the story, including calling out others who abuse animals, upholding the Golden Rule, standing up for principles and helping others in need. When she wrote Black Beauty, she intended it to be a guide for people who worked with horses, but it became a children’s classic. She shows very clearly how horses and other creatures need to be treated humanely and allows the reader to see into the minds of Beauty and her friends.
Sewell manages to tell a nice children’s story without sugar coating the conditions of the time. I recommend Black Beauty to all readers, young and old.
Anna Sewell (1820-1878) was an English writer. Her parents were devout Quakers and her mother wrote children’s books. A childhood injury left Anna unable to walk without a crutch and she rode in many horse-drawn carriages to get around, where her love of horses began. As an adult, Sewell suffered from hepatitis and tuberculosis and wrote Black Beauty while confined to bed. It was published in 1877, just one year before her death.
I read Black Beauty as part of my Build a Better World Summer Reading Challenge to read a book that I could finish in a day.
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