They say that youth is wasted on the young. That may be so, but based on my reading of the last few weeks, so-called children’s books are also wasted on the children! I am glad I have returned to reading.
After following Buck's adventures in The Call of the Wild, I moved onto Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, another classic that I had never read before. Sewell, an English invalid who cared deeply about the horses she depended on for mobility, paints a vivid picture of 19th century English life from a horse’s eye point of view, from the lush country estates of the aristocracy to the crowded and poverty-stricken streets of Victorian London.
Whereas Buck could eventually flee human society to follow the call of the wild, Black Beauty, like most of us, has no such option. Although raised in great comfort, as time goes by he must toil under a variety of good, bad, and indifferent masters. He has almost no control over his circumstances, but endures as best he can.
In The Call of the Wild, Buck forms a strong bond with one of his many masters, John Thornton. The parallel in Sewell’s novel is Jerry Barker, a hardworking cab driver who owns Black Beauty for some years. Jerry is a thoroughly decent man, who treats his horses, family, and fellow drivers with dignity and good humor.
The world depicted in the book, however, is often far from decent. There is a great deal of cruelty and suffering to be found, much of it driven by ignorance, selfishness, or the dictates of economics. The latter are especially harsh, and result in both horses and men being worked to death for the sake of a few coins.
Sewell was raised as a Quaker, and remained religious throughout her life. Several versions of the good Samaritan story occur, and Sewell is clear in her conviction that we all have a moral obligation to do right, and that to do nothing when wrong is being done is to condone it.
Sewell wrote the book primarily in the hope that its publication could improve the treatment of horses. She paints a vivid picture of the sufferings of the "dumb animals", a worthy goal, but beyond that her novel is a clarion call for decency in general. I am glad that I read it.