Because my "to read" list is long, I do not often read books found serendipitously. That's too bad in a way, as there are many wonderful books ready to be found by wandering the library aisles. I was recently scanning the horse books at the Downers Grove Public Library, looking for a natural history of horses, when I found Beautiful Jim Key: The Lost History of a Horse and a Man Who Changed the World by Mim Eichler Rivas. On the cover is an old photograph of an elderly African-American holding the reins of a horse with a bandage on its right hind leg. To the right is a dog sitting in a wooden folding chair. They stand before a tidy farmhouse with a triangular peaked roof. The cover spoke to me, promising a good story.
According to Rivas, Beautiful Jim Key was once the most famous horse living in America. Now, few people remember the name, but Jim was second only to the fictional Black Beauty in importance to the animal rights movement of the 1890s and 1900s. At that time, many horses suffered as livery animals for unkind masters. Many were beaten, starved, and worked to death in cities and towns across the country. The incredible Beautiful Jim Key who could spell words, do math, give change, flirt with the ladies, and star in his own stage play became an effective symbol for organizations promoting humane treatment of animals. He made people question the self-awareness and emotions of animals and the ethics of abusing conscious beings.
I enjoyed how the author included social history in the narrative. Race relations, the humane treatment of animals, and the development of the entertainment industry are interwoven effortlessly into a story with characters that will appeal to many readers.
Like Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand, Beautiful Jim Key brings together a down-on-his-luck animal with several unlikely humans. The most important is Doctor William Keys, a former slave from Tennessee who becomes a well-known veterinarian, manufacturer of patent medicines for animals, and showman. His story during the Civil War could make another good book. He is always surprisingly industrious, even as the property of another man, and finds ways to live civilly and prosperously during the hardest times. He is the horse's constant companion throughout this charming book, which librarians should recommend to readers who like good animal stories.
Rivas, Mim Eichler. Beautiful Jim Key: The Lost History of a Horse and a Man Who Changed the World. William Morrow, 2005. ISBN 0060567031