Cross-posted from KERA News for North Texas
part of the NPR digital network
WRITTEN BY MICHELLE NORRIS
NPR’s Backseat Book Club is back! And we begin this round of reading adventures with a cherished classic: Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.
Generations of children and adults have loved this book. With vivid detail and simple, yet lyrical prose, Black Beauty describes both the cruelty and kindness that an ebony-colored horse experiences through his lifetime — from the open pastures in the English countryside to the cobblestone grit of 19th-century England.
Sewell wanted the reader to see the world from a horse’s point of view and so Black Beauty tells his own story in these pages. His wise observations and unvarnished candor reveal much about both human nature and animal suffering.
Black Beauty was born at a time when horse power fueled almost everything: wars, agriculture, transportation, construction and factory work. Horses pulled barges. They hauled coal and granite. And they were also seen as a measure of wealth; the way one rode atop a stiffly controlled horse could convey style and stature. All of this meant horses were both exalted and often pushed past the point of exhaustion.
To better understand how Sewell’s book became a children’s classic and an animal rights manifesto we turned to Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley, who has written several books about horses herself. Smiley also rides and grooms horses and has re-opened the pages of Black Beauty several times in her lifetime. The book, she says, offers different lessons in adulthood than when she first picked it up as a child. But Smiley says the central themes of courage, perseverance and the power of kindness are timeless.
“Black Beauty helped people see animals in a new way,” Smiley says. “As soon as you say that an animal has a point of view, then it’s very difficult to just go and be cruel to that animal. … [It showed] readers that the world is full of beings who should not be treated like objects.”
This is a great gift idea, especially for young horse lovers. — Ed.