In 1892, Margaret Marshall Saunders entered a competition for the Humane Society of New England that requested stories to support their cause. One of the requirements was that the books be set, naturally enough, in New England, so the story that the Nova Scotian author produced is now claimed as both an American (by nature of the setting) and Canadian (by nature of the author’s nationality) children’s classic. Beautiful Joe not only won Saunders the $200 in prize money, but became the first Canadian novel to sell over one million copies. Beautiful Joe is considered by many to be the North American Black Beauty (1877), the tale of an animal who suffers under the cruelty of humans and is then taken into a more loving, humane household.
One of the most interesting aspects of Beautiful Joe—as a story—is its enduring resonance with its transnational readership. Numerous and diverse editions of the story have been produced in order to sanitize (bowdlerize, in my opinion) the story in order to render it more in keeping with changing sensibilities regarding depictions of cruelty to animals, especially for younger readers. The early editions are most effective
in revealing the hardships animals suffered at the hands of humans, and fuelled the burgeoning support for Humane Societies in the United States and Canada: not only the SPCA and the RSPCA, but organizations such as the Beautiful Joe Heritage Society, a more modern response to the effectiveness of Saunders’s narrative appeal.
The story itself is predictable, following the episodic structure of Black Beauty and other tales of moral righteousness (Little Women [1868-69] springs also to mind). Like Black Beauty, Beautiful Joe tells his own tale: the life of a dog, from the horse’s mouth, as it were. Beautiful Joe was abused by his owner, Jenkins: his siblings are killed by being dashed against a wall and his mother, traumatized, succumbs to grief. Angered at her death, Joe attacks his master: as a result, his ears and tail are inexpertly and cruelly cropped. Enter the guardian angel in the form of Harry, cousin to the Morris children, who take him in and give him a loving home. The first, horrific chapter of his life is short; the remainder of the book has Beautiful Joe—so-called to make him feel his ugliness less—as a beloved and well-treated pet. The family are adamant—even at times radical—Animal Rights activists, and the episodes Beautiful Joe relates tell other animals’ tales of woe and survival, no longer his own.
If you liked Black Beauty, you will almost certainly like Beautiful Joe, for Saunders strikes an effective balance between animal and human sensibilities. For a myriad of reasons—content, style, publication history, and social context—it deserves its place as a classic of Canadian children’s literature.