Stories I Have Loved: Beautiful Joe

Posted by hlinfield on February 5, 2013 at 11:10 AM

Stories I’ve Loved: Beautiful Joe

I love bedtime stories with my sons and am always on the look out for novels to read with them that will be able to keep their attention. We’ve done the abridged versions of Robinson Crusoe, The Three Musketeers, 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, and The Time Machine. All of these were successes.

Interestingly, I had never read any of these novels as children. I was experiencing them for the first time along with my sons. Lately I’ve started thinking that I’d like to introduce books to my sons that I loved when I was a child.

The first book I ever loved was The Secret Garden. I read it at least a hundred times as a child, ignoring my bookshelf filled with other great novels. I’d love to read it to my sons but I know they’re not ready for it yet. (I wrote about The Secret Garden on Rhoda Baxter’s ‘Inheritance Books’ website.)

Putting aside The Secret Garden leads me to the second book I ever loved: Beautiful Joe, by Marshall Saunders.

Like all great animal stories, (with the exception of James Herriot’s books) Beautiful Joe is told from the perspective of the animal, in this case a scarred, rough-looking farm mutt. According to the author’s note, it is based on a true story that took place in Meaford, Ontario.

Though I didn’t realize it as a child, Beautiful Joe is essentially a treatise on the prevention of cruelty to animals. It’s a simply-written plea to children to always treat animals with love and kindness.

Poor Joe is born in a barn on a filthy farm to a horrible master. As a puppy, Joe watches, terrified, as his mother runs around shrieking with sorrow while her master brutally murders all of Joe’s brothers and sisters. After the murderer leaves the barn, Joe’s mother creeps about collecting all her dead babies. She puts them back into their bed and licks them and licks them, trying in vain to make them come alive. When Joe’s mother dies a few months later, likely of a broken heart, Joe flies at this horrible master in a rage. As a punishment, the master mutilates Joe by cutting off his ears and tail. Joe shrieks in pain and his cries are heard by a young man passing by the farm. Joe is rescued and taken to live with the Morris family and the beloved Mistress Laura.

It is really at this point where the story starts. Joe’s new family is kind and there are many lovely children for him to play with. At one point Joe even catches a burglar, thereby proving his worth to humans skeptical of dogs. Throughout the novel, assumptions about animals – that they’re inherently stupid, or filthy, or aggressive – are addressed and dispensed with.

It’s a story about the importance of nurturing and about the importance of fighting against ignorance. It’s a simple story of right and wrong and it found a welcome place in my young mind.

It was published almost eighty years ago and the odd reference to ‘coloured’ folks would rightly make a modern reader cringe, (but might create a valuable teaching moment if you read it with your children) but the language is simple and the overarching theme is of kindness and love for all creatures.

If anyone is looking for a book with a positive message to read with his or her children, look no further. The last line of Beautiful Joe is this: “Boys and girls, be kind to dumb animals, not only because you will lose nothing by it, but because you ought to; for they were placed on the earth by the same Kind Hand that made all living creatures.”

As non-religious as I am, that simple plea brings a lump to my throat.

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1 Comment

Reply Rebecca
10:49 PM on November 15, 2013 
I read this book as a teenager. I too loved it. It touched me in the way a good book should, and will. This is a great blog on a very fine book, and you're right, it's a fine book to read to children. I am not religious either, but this book was, and is, very touching, with a very heartfelt, and simple, message.