You can feel the electric thrill running throughout our home. My daughter just inherited bunk beds from her aunt – something she has longed for ever since the treat of sleeping in a bunk at her Grandma and Papa’s Oregonian cabin. On the first night in her new slumber spot, she climbed into the top bunk, insistent on sleeping up high. However, in a slightly conservative retraction following the toppling off of several of her beloved stuffed animals, she decided after a few hours to retreat to the lower one “to get started.”
I must admit, crawling into the bottom bunk is cozy. On these longer evenings at the cusp of summer, fireflies dotting the window outside, we delight in opening our new chapter book as we pull the light sheets over us and create a magic cave in which to savor every word. The boys, exhausted from their new foray into little league baseball, are already snoring soundly in the next room. So the scenario makes for a delicious mommy-daughter-only time: a few extra minutes of solitary attention for the firstborn who often pulls the heavier sled of responsibility and sibling peacemaking throughout the day.
I wish I could keep the Norman Rockwell image intact for you: little girl with golden curls in rainbowed nightie snuggled up next to the Boticelliesque mother, all rounded with child and abloom with expectancy.
But that would be driving a bit too far with an expired poetic license.
No, it’s more like this big, ol’ tired mama rolling onto the cot like a beached whale, trying not to crush her little mermaid of a daughter with her girth. Have you ever noticed before just how difficult it is to climb into the lower bunk? It’s closer to the floor and overhung with a somewhat claustrophobic roof. Much like climbing into my mother’s low-slung 1985 fiberglass Fiero (yes, my almost octogenarian mother drives a red sports car – but that’s another blog). Once you roll in 8 months pregnant, rolling out is about as easy as out swimming a riptide, or catching a greased pig with your hands tied behind your back.
I brought three new chapter books into the soporific crawlspace with me (“soporific” – I’ve always loved that word since Beatrix Potter used it to describe the effect of overeating lettuce on young rabbits). Partly to provide Victoria with a selection; partly because I did not want to have to heave myself out in search of another book if the one I selected didn’t appeal as her first choice. All of my children have a distinct knack for waiting until you are quite nicely settled, thank you very much, before making an additional request that usually involves movement. Giving, I find, becomes harder to pull off with a cheerful heart as the day goes on. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Jesus asked his disciples not to doze in the garden of Gethsemane: well-rested servitude is one thing, but as anyone with a baby will tell you, fatigued servitude is quite another.
Black Beauty! This is the book Victoria pointed at with glee. It is all about horses for her right now, so of course the classic written by Anna Sewell (1820-1878) easily rose as the shining star among the fanned out choices.
Anna Sewell was born into a devoutly Quaker family in Norfolk, England. Her first and only novel, Black Beauty, offered an innovative approach at the time because Sewell told her story as an autobiography through the eyes of a horse. The story’s premise is fairly simple: Black Beauty, a good-natured and trusting horse born into a loving home, endures suffering at the hands of sometimes overtly cruel, sometimes simply irresponsible owners, until he is restored to some kindly ladies and enjoys retirement and healing in a beautiful pasture. When I did a little research on Black Beauty, published in 1877, I knew it was a classic but was surprised to discover just how amazing its popularity statistics were. The novel gained immediate success, and has remained a classic with over 50 million copies sold. In fact, it ranks as the fifth bestseller in the English language.
Sewell’s concern over the cruelty to animals surely grew from her childhood experiences. Injured as a child, Sewell remained lame for the rest of her life; this rendered her highly dependent on horses for travel. As a result, she witnessed firsthand the cruelty with which particularly beasts of burden were treated and often spoke up against it. By extension, she saw how economics and poverty drove human cruelty and exploitation as well. Sewell grew up helping to edit the work of her mother, Mary Wright Sewell (1797-1884), a deeply religious woman and best-selling author of juvenile books. Anna he never married nor had children. Well travelled and connected, she eventually became an invalid, however, and wrote Black Beauty while she lay dying during the last year of her life.
A “bit” is a form of horse tack, usually a piece made from metal that is placed in the horse’s mouth by which the rider may communicate through the attached bridle and reins. What “bit” of revelation does Sewell communicate from her death bed? From the impending knowledge of her own end on earth and teetering on heaven, why did she write such a story?
Just what is the book’s enduring appeal?
I thought about posing this question to my daughter. What did she enjoy most about this book? I ask her when we close its cover. She tells me her favorite parts are when Black Beauty is treated kindly: how happy she is when, after he suffers, he finds a good home.
I had to agree, those were my favorite parts too.
Obviously, Sewell would have known her Bible well. And certainly the knowledge of one’s death only brings into clearer focus how “Living” God’s Word really is. A compassionate and sensitive observer of her world, we see how Sewell took God’s truths to heart. We see, in turn, these truths at the heart of her story: for although the voice is that of an animal, it speaks to everything animated, or “with a soul.”
Cruelty to those weaker than oneself translates to cruelty to all. Treat others as you yourself would want to be treated. Love one another as you have first been loved, and live your life, always, according to that primary generosity.
Judgment, Cruelty, Poverty, Mercy, Kindness, Salvation. Sewell’s first and final book does not shy away from filling its pages with such lines in the sand. “There is no religion without love, and people may talk as much as they like about their religion, but if it does not teach them to be good and kind to man and beast, it is all a sham,” writes Sewell in chapter 13 of Black Beauty.
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” an expert asks Jesus, to which our Savior replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt 22:36-40).
My daughter and I talk about the story of Balaam and his donkey from Numbers 22: 21-39, where even a well-intentioned prophet can be reprimanded by God for his cruelty to a creature weaker (and yet more insightful) than himself.
And then, of course, especially given the death bed religious imagination from which Black Beauty came, how could we not but help consider the Black Horse of Revelation?
Biblical scholar G. K. Beale tells us in his Commentary on the Book of Revelation that of the four horses of the Apocalypse, the Black Horse usually is seen to represent “famine” or a time of economic hardship and scarcity of resources: “As with the previous two woes, this plague affects all people, but again, Christians more specifically may be in mind … Such persecution comes because Christians do not compromise” (382). Christians do not serve other Gods or idols, and therefore, do not give allegiance or pay support. As Beale continues to explain, “Those who suffer economic deprivation now because of their loyalty to Christ will be rewarded by him at the consummation of all things when he will take away their ‘hunger and thirst’ forever” (7:16).
As a devout Christian trying to keep her eye on the final crown amidst running a race on this fallen earth, it begs the question whether Sewell’s novel about a “dark horse” is also a metaphor for the Christian pilgrimage, as fueled by Christian hope.
The term “dark horse” stands for a little-known (or meek) individual (often times applied to a racehorse) who, while he seems unlikely to succeed, ends up emerging from a race or competition triumphant. The earliest first documented use of the term was by Benjamin Disraeli in 1831. Given the time period and popularity of his novels, and Sewell’s well-read stance, she most likely was familiar with such a phrase and could have had it in mind when framing her story as a sort of double narrative: a Christian’s life, in a sense, straight from the horse’s mouth.
Moreover, famine conjures poverty. Famine represents impoverishment. It is the infliction of not having enough. If heaven is marked by a feast, hell must be famine. Yes, we see the very real plague of poverty in the economic variables illustrated in Sewell’s story. Slovenly caretakers cause very real suffering in those they fail to take proper care of (resulting, for instance, in the hoof disease of the horses). Cab drivers who must slave for their wages are left exposed the elements, often falling ill and even losing their livelihoods as a result of the oblivious rich who employ them and impose unfair demands, coupled with exploitative work laws, fines and taxes.
But even more so, underlying Sewell’s story runs the current of spiritual poverty, or the paucity of soul which results from not knowing, serving and loving one’s God first, and then necessarily failing to extend this commandment which leads to the abundant life for all. Sewell’s timeless tale shows the effects of miserliness when we withhold our love from God, God’s love from ourselves, and so do not administer love to others.
In God’s great timing, our Bible passage at church just this past week as we wrapped up Black Beauty was the parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke (10:29-37), and how truly radical it is in defining neighborship in Christ. We shared the sermon’s thoughts with our children around the dinner table; they immersed themselves in the power of the story through crafts, song and prayer during their own complementary Sunday school. Subsequently, I see the penny drop when Victoria and I discuss the theme of loving others at work in her chapter book of choice, as well.
And then how to read the wonderful ending of Black Beauty, finally set free in the joy of that glorious pasture, and not recall Psalm 23? A psalm which surely gave Sewell much comfort too, during the composition of her book along the decomposition of her body:
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
A happy ending, does, indeed, make up for a lot.
And then some!
Funny how the eternal truths really do endure. And how they point to the ultimate happy ending in the restored world. As Tolkien put it so eloquently:
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
This is the secret that all classics know: the truths they harbor, unfurl and leave in our mind’s hearts. This is the inner sanctum, the place within that does not age but which marvels at the kingdom of God and accepts its glory and grace with all the appreciative wonder of a child sighing into peace upon being filled with the happy ending: “for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Lk 18:16).
We say our prayers. I sing a hymn while stroking her heavy limbs now, still faintly echoed with infantine roundness. I kiss that cheek, and the sweet birthmark on the forehead: the angel’s kiss, we’ve called it, since she was born. Her breathing grows slower as she murmurs back “Good night, Mama.” Oh how the change in books has marked the change in the seasons! We have travelled from Benjamin Bunny and Goodnight Moon and Madeline now to these chapters, drawing us ever closer to the adult world: to the time when I will let her go, and trust the words, along with the Word, will sustain her. All these words, these pages, such faithful friends.
I brace myself against the bed railing as I turn away from sleeping nymph. Lifting myself out with hippopotamus-like grace, I bump my head, pull something in my groin, tweak what I think used to be an abdominal muscle from days long ago. I roll out of our woman-cave onto the floor. It is not a pretty sight: first I hit all fours on the area rug, then I must draw myself up in child’s pose, then I stand slowly. Baby kicks my bladder in protest to the acrobatics or the end of the story – I cannot tell which. I reach over, massaging my sciatica with one hand and turning off the bedside table lamp with the other.
Rubbing my head and limping to bathroom in the dark, I still must admit: every page of a classic is worth climbing into.