‘Beautiful’ tells lovely tales | VailDaily.com

‘Beautiful’ tells lovely tales

Terri Schlichenmeyer

There isn’t a pet owner in the world that needs to be convinced that animals have smarts. We already know it. Get a group of dog or cat owners together, and the conversation quickly turns to one-upmanship stories about the intelligence and ingenuity of their pets.Speaking of which did I ever tell you about my Truman? He’s the smartest pup in the world. He knows lots of tricks, but he can’t add nearly as well as the horse in “Beautiful Jim Key” by Mim Eichler Rivas (c.2005, William Morrow).William Key was born into slavery in 1833, and from a young age, he was renowned for his “way” with animals. People said that if Bill went into a pen with a wild horse or angry mule, he could calm it with his voice. He also had a strong knowledge of herbal and natural medicines, and because of his healing abilities, young Bill traveled around Tennessee, helping animals and their owners, and enjoying a freedom of movement almost unknown to slaves.In his later years and following the Civil War, “Doc” Key became quite affluent; he was a landowner, businessman, and creator of a popular patent medicine. Key spent his days touring the South, selling his famous liniment for man and horse. While traveling, Key was also looking at horseflesh. He wanted to breed the greatest racehorse in the world. What he got, instead, was a spindly, sickly colt that looked as if it might never walk, let alone race.Key took care of the colt, which he named Jim, and he allowed Jim to follow him around unimpeded. How far could a bandy-legged colt go, anyhow? Key began to notice that Jim was unusually observant and liked to watch Key play with his dogs. One night, Jim brought Key a stick and asked to play “fetch.” It was then that Key realized he had a very unusual horse on his hands.Eventually, Doc Key was able to teach Jim to read, spell, count, and write his name on a chalkboard. Millions of people saw Jim perform at the World’s Fair in St. Louis, at exhibits in Pennsylvania, New York, Tennessee, and dozens of other places. Beautiful Jim Key postcards and souvenir buttons became sought-after collectibles. So how did it happen that such a famous celebrity is almost unknown today?Author Mim Eichler Rivas asked that same question. Weaving history, biography, and culture in her book, she hints that the story of William Key and his educated horse might have disappeared from history only because so much else appeared. Automobiles, telephones, and electricity much more exciting to future-seeking Americans eclipsed a mere spelling horse. But was Jim really educated, or was he just good at picking up clues from his teacher and the audience? Rivas doesn’t say, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions.”Beautiful Jim Key” is a beautifully researched book, perfect for pet owners, horse lovers, and history buffs. Should you miss it? I say neigh. VT

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