Saturday, April 30, 2016

Everything I Really Needed to Know I Learned by Reading “Black Beauty”

     I first read “Black Beauty” when I was nine or ten.  I was already horse-crazy, I lived on a farm (for a while,) but I never got a horse.  It wasn’t for lack of asking.  But the answer was always the same; “We’ll see.”  Of course that was grown-up code for “Ha! In your dreams, kid.”  

     I never got a horse, but for a year or two I had a donkey.  He was great – as donkeys go – but he was no horse.  Not even if you squinted your eyes really hard.  He was little.  He was wooly.  He had jack-rabbit ears.  I loved him, but he didn’t assuage my longing for a horse.

    No, I wanted a horse - a black horse like Black Beauty.  (Or “Fury” the TV horse.)  

     I also wanted to be a horse.  In the year or so that my mother’s divorce caused me to move away from the farm and live with my grandmother in town, I spent hours galloping about on my hands and knees, whinnying and snorting.  In this I was joined by the two girls who lived next door to my grandmother, Jeannie and Gayle.  Gayle was the younger of the two so Jeannie and I would gang up on her and make her be “the master.”  There had to be a master most times, although sometimes we would pretend to be wild horses.   Then Gayle would get to be a horse too.  
     I must have read “Black Beauty” 20 times or so as I was growing up.  Beauty was my ideal horse, my hero, and my teacher.  He made me consider the importance of politeness, and put the seeds of non-violent philosophy in my head.  Even in my “difficult” years of pot, psychedelics and rock music Beauty reminded me to work hard and “never bite or kick.”

     Meshing nicely with my tomboy/hippie sensibilities was Beauty’s disdain for fashion.   The wisdom of this attitude was reinforced by my mother’s mania for looking stylish and sexy.  It never brought her anything but grief, a couple of extremely unsuitable husbands and a seeming superiority complex that was generated as a mask to hide the insecure, angry person behind it.

     To me, fashion was not only no fun, but it was a big lie.  It was itchy, tight and didn’t feel right.  My mother was tiny and good-looking.   I was large, gawky and socially inept.  The bra was my bearing-rein.  I couldn’t wait to get home from school to shed it.   I had a horror of girdles, stockings, heels and cosmetics.   I still do.  I will very likely be buried or burned in jeans and a t-shirt.   Black Beauty looked best to me without saddle, bridle, harness or even a halter.  I wished for a gleaming, satiny coat to cover me decently and comfortably.   Jeans and a t-shirt were the best compromise I could manage.

     The happiness of Beauty’s early years were terminated suddenly, and he passed from hand to hand, enduring owners that were sometimes humane and caring, sometimes well-meaning but inept, and sometimes cruel and spiteful.  In this too, we were alike.  Beauty was a horse, and though he was a big, strong animal he was ultimately powerless.  I could relate.  Though often told that I was talented and smart, I was nearly always criticized for being a screw-up in the same breath.  It was very confusing, and as I lay in my bed at night, dispirited and trying to make sense of it all, I would think of Beauty, tied to a manger in a drafty, dark stable, trying with all his might to make the best of his lot and hold up his head.

The best film adaptation I've seen of the book was the 1994 version. Directed by Caroline Thompson
and featuring Sean Bean, Alan Cumming, David Thewlis, Jim Carter, Peter Davison.  Beauty is portrayed by Doc's Keepin' Time, A Quarter Horse.  You can Pick up a used copy om Amazon for a penny, plus shipping.

I read an amusing review in the Videohound Golden Movie Retriever which said:

"Remake of the classic Anna Sewell children's novel about an oft-sold horse whose life has its shares of ups and downs. Timeless tale still brings children and adults to tears. Six-year-old quarterhorse named Justin gives a nuanced portrayal as the Black Beauty, recalling Olivier in "Hamlet." Directorial debut of "Secret Garden" screenwriter Thompson."

(that about Olivier presumably because Beauty threw his head around a lot, and also rolled his eyes and distended his nostrils a great deal.)

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