I originally wrote this several years ago as a guest blog. Time for a re-post, not just because it’s nearly Christmas, but because I realize, in rereading it, how much influence my childhood reading of Black Beauty had on shaping the perspective of life and art that made my new novel In Our Midst possible and, for me, necessary.
The Gift of Black Beauty
I was seven, my hands and stomach trembling together as they always did on Christmas mornings—especially when the package my mother laid in my lap was a crisply wrapped rectangle, heavy for its size and thickness, obviously a book. Other packages I tore into like a savage, but books I unwrapped slowly, sliding my fingers under the seam of the wrapping paper, caressing the surface of the still-hidden book as if I could read Braille.
At last I pulled away the paper and saw a magnificent black horse rearing up into the golden light that bathed his vast, unfenced pasture. His coat, so sleek it looked wet, the prominent white star at the center of his forehead, his mane and tail whipped by a wind that touched nothing else—all these details combined to express who this Black Beauty was: a proud, triumphant creature taking joy in his freedom.
It was the perfect gift for little me, for I loved books and I loved horses, but I didn’t have any way of knowing how my love for Black Beauty would shape my life. All books before this, I realize now, had been storybooks—simply plotted happenings, sometimes in clever rhymes, but nothing that made me feel anything stronger than amusement. Reading Black Beauty, I cried real tears, many times, and when I finished, I read it again and again, finding I craved the feeling of being pulled by words through delight, heartbreak, and all the emotions in between, ultimately to a deep contentment I could carry with me, reflecting on what Black Beauty had learned: that terrible things happen sometimes, beyond our control—like a stumble in a rut—and change the course of our lives; that no matter how hard we try to hold our heads up, to be good and noble and kind, we don’t always get the treatment we deserve or deserve the treatment we get; that genuine triumph comes only after trial, and that nothing matters so much as knowing and holding onto our true selves.
Though I’m sure at seven I had never heard the word literature, I know now that reading Black Beauty burst open the seed of who I am—the lover of literature and the writer—all of it the gift of a horse who never lived, but who lives always.