Books are a forest and it’s hard to see the trees, except the tall ones or the old ones. But when you enter the forest, it’s the new growth that emits the sunlight....

Monday, March 11, 2013

From Black Beauty to news about horse meat

Red Room has made the challenge for bloggers to write about their favorite children’s adventure story:

"There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate's loot on Treasure Island." –Walt Disney

While books had been published specifically for children’s education and entertainment since at least the 1600s, the genre boomed in the 19th century with increases in population, literacy, and ease of printing. From the recording of centuries-old fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Russian and Indian authors to original tales like Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer, and Swiss Family Robinson, the most popular stories were always about adventures, often with children or animals as heroes.

The word favorite as applied to books usually has me stumped.  Reading children’s adventure, I often felt I was reading my favorite  – until the next good book.  I had an especial liking for animal stories and lately, with the issues about horse meat, I remember how great Black Beauty was.  Of course, I thought it my favorite book on finishing it.   I read it again as an adult, agreeing with my child opinion of Anna Sewell’s book. 

Edwin John Prittie illustrated

As a used books dealer, I found many editions of Black Beauty.  The book was a favorite of publishers as classics go, reprinted and given another illustrator.  I tended to pick up any good copy of the book but when I looked this week, I found that all are sold.  The only other children’s classic that found so many publishers and illustrators, it seemed, was Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates.
Art nouveau binding

Fritz Eichenberg illustrated
Black Beauty was different from other animal books in being a Dickensian expose of how horse owners use the horse that carries them and other loads.  Black Beauty and Ginger, the female horse with whom he pulled a carriage, had adventure thrust upon them.  I will never forget the harness bit being pulled up more and more so that the horses pranced elegantly enough for a wealthy woman.   If this heartless discomfort weren’t enough, the rest of the book tells of owner changes, demotions for a horse, and the drudgery of cab pulling in the city.  Black Beauty himself relates the vicissitudes of his life and how he spends his last days at pasture.  

Anna Sewell could make a child sympathetic to the sharp shocks in the horse’s fortunes.  She could also prepare a child for life itself.    Her ability to keep the reader with Black Beauty during his bleak and broken periods atones to her characterization of a horse.  She has the reader loving Black Beauty as if he were their horse.  

Wesley Dennis illustration

Black Beauty’s life shows the heroism of a working horse in Britain.  Horses have figured in so many heroic endeavors that a typical horse life reveals heroism as the horse’s nature.  Sewell might have written an equine Iliad if she had wanted more exciting scenes but then the theme would be more about war.  Instead, she focused on the daily dependence humans had for their horse, a dependence that had gone on for centuries.   While many formed a close bond with their horse, horses were necessary for people who felt no sympathy for animals.   Yet I would expect that the horse, after so many centuries of service, would have a status somewhat like the cow in India.

Because a lot of people feel for the horse’s dignity, the idea of eating horse meat horrifies.   The horse has enjoyed some decades of freedom.  Film roles, racing, and pleasure riding would seem its fate now.  But where there is a demand, that old taskmaster is there to use the horse.  Even though horse meat is prohibited in the U.S., 100,000 horses a year are being sent to Canada and Mexico for slaughter.  See

I grew up in a town where meat was slaughtered.  As a child, I was told that the cows and the pigs enjoyed the best lives before they were painlessly killed.   The animals were on the family farm until many of those farms were foreclosed in the 1980s.  Apparently I was born in the wrong place because I had to be goaded to eat meat as a child.  Later, I didn’t have to eat meat.  Nobody did.  And on seeing the treatment of animals, I could not eat meat that wasn’t conscientiously procured.  When I heard about horse meat appearing in European products not sold as such, I was glad I didn’t eat much meat.  

The whole issue of eating meat is a problem since humankind has eaten meat from prehistoric times.   Yet in early cave paintings, there is an admiration for a horse’s form.  From the descriptions of animal sacrifice in ancient literature, it might seem that man was seeking permission or making an agreement with the creator about the necessity of eating meat. In Egypt, the god Osiris was said to teach the growing of grain and other foods so that man didn’t have to kill for his food.

Today there are many more protein sources.  The American habit of eating meat at every meal was not typical at all of most Europeans who came to the United States.  Before 1950, that kind of meat consumption was associated with the well-off, not with the middle classes.  Cookbooks from the 1930s and earlier often had vegetarian recipes and alternatives for families who could not afford meat.
Rumford recipes

The horse meat issue is remindful of the changes in the meat industry.   Black Beauty should be read again.  I’ve enjoyed the recent films of it.   The horse was one of the most taken-for-granted animals, if not the most.  It apparently suffered from being valuable for its tamed possibilities, for being very much needed, and from being available to abusers.  Keeping young people informed about the history of horses would help them to understand the controversy better if they haven’t had the privilege of knowing a horse.