Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell

April 12, 2012 at 17:56 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Classic Literature, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Literature) (, , )

7/10

A story about horses, as told by horses? Nonsense! Surely a simpering, unbearable litany of velvet-nosed, gentle noncharacters, each more awful than the last. Puritanical preaching and a hastily scribbled version of the olden days; and certainly only elbowing its way into the “classics” collection due to a disappointing number of animal lovers prepared to accept tawdry literature and cloyingly sweet stories only because of the content, and without a care for the quality.

“While I was young I lived upon my mother’s milk, as I could not eat grass. In the daytime I ran by her side, and at night I lay down close by her. When it was hot we used to stand by the pond in the shade of the trees, and when it was cold we had a nice warm shed near the grove.”

-Black Beauty

It is remarkably easy to judge this book extremely quickly, and write it off as a depressing relic without real substance. It is about horses, so surely it is about nothing but horses. This expectation will not easily survive past the first few chapters (where admittedly little exciting happens). But in spite of this being a slow starter, the reader is immediately plunged into such a rich landscape with characters at once exciting and powerfully captivating, both equine and human. Perhaps that is the saving grace that opens this book up so readily: it is about horses, but not only horses. It is a thick and vivid cross-section of early Victorian life, from the grim rain-lashed cobbles of Dickensian London to Austen’s world of polite genteel society. In every sketch of life is a unique blend of tragedy and triumph; and although the story makes no secret that it is a crusade for the betterment of animals everywhere, Sewell expertly joins the fates of Beauty, Ginger and the other animals to the fates and fortunes of the full and lifelike human characters.

“One day two wild-looking young men came out of a tavern close by the stand, and called Jerry.

‘Here, cabby! look sharp, we are rather late; put on the steam, will you, and take us to the Victoria in time for the one o’clock train? You shall have a shilling extra.'”

-Black Beauty

This ultimately sets Black Beauty apart from other animal stories (even high-quality authors like Jack London). She manages a dual focus on both her sympathetic horsey heroes and on the world around them, never once forgetting who it is her heroes are, but refusing to spend her novel frolicking in grassy meadows and mossy barns. There are heroes and villains in the animal world and the human world, and both sets are given the same careful attention. A gentle book, but with clearly defined peaks and troughs, and sharp moments of crisis and climax to offset the pastoral setting. Plainly, this will not appeal to every reader (even the most tolerant). But just as plainly, there is more to this book than meets the eye. If ever there were a book more susceptible to being misjudged by its cover, this is it. Readers ought to go into Black Beauty with their eyes open as to the sort of story it is, but they should not hesitate to go into Black Beauty at all.

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