Beautiful Jim Key: The Lost History of a Horse and a Man Who Changed the World

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9780060567033: Beautiful Jim Key: The Lost History of a Horse and a Man Who Changed the World

For close to a century, a majestic chapter of American history has been buried in an obscure grave in Shelbyville, Tennessee. Beautiful Jim Key, the onetime ugly duckling of a scrub colt that became one of the most heralded and beloved heroes of his day, was famous neither for his beauty nor his speed but instead for his exceptional intelligence. Said to have an I.Q. equivalent to that of a human sixth-grader, Jim exploded on to the national scene in 1897 by demonstrating inexplicable abilities to read, write, spell, do mathematics, tell time, sort mail, cite biblical passages, and debate politics.

For the next nine years, Jim performed in nationwide expositions and world's fairs to wildly receptive crowds, smashing box-office records, overcoming hurdles of prejudice and skepticism, all the while winning rapturous praise from the press and leaders such as President McKinley, Booker T. Washington, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

In this breathtaking saga, Jim's astonishing journey is coupled with that of his trainer and best friend, Dr. William Key, a self-taught veterinarian, former slave, Civil War veteran, prominent African-American entrepreneur, and one of the most renowned horse whisperers of his time -- a man who shunned all force in the training of horses, instead relying on kindness and patience.

Masterful storyteller and bestselling author Mim Eichler Rivas at long last gives two cultural icons their due, not only unraveling the mystery of their disappearance but examining how, thanks to the rare and intimate relationship between horse and man that was championed by promoter and humane activist Albert R. Rogers, a dramatic shift took place in the public mind that made kindness to animals a cornerstone of modern civilization and helped launch the animal rights movement. Unveiled against the backdrop of American history, Beautiful Jim Key is their incredible tale.

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Review:

An inspirational tale that was nearly buried beneath the detritus of time (namely floods and fires), Beautiful Jim Key recalls the remarkable life of a remarkable horse at the turn of the previous century. Revered not for his speed on the track, Beautiful Jim Key was instead a cerebral celebrity who electrified fairgoers from St. Louis to Boston with apparent feats of mathematics, reading, and writing, even making change for a dollar. But as might be expected, author Mim Eichler Rivas's story is about much more than a horse from Tennessee imbued with a staggering intellect. It's also about Jim Key's equally remarkable trainer, Dr. William Key, a black man and onetime slave who narrowly survived the American Civil War, prospered against all odds, and emerged as a wealthy inventor, self-trained veterinarian, and community pillar. Dr. Key's use of kindness and patience to train Jim, rather than the de rigueur tactics of beatings and intimidation, gave way to fresh thinking about animal husbandry at a time when animals were considered virtually inanimate. And then some: "The horse and the man from Tennessee had not only helped pioneer the humane movement but had, over the past seven years, in direct and indirect ways, changed the face of popular entertainment. [Suddenly], the big-budgeted theatrical productions began adding nonhuman cast members to their shows." The author provides ample scene-setting color, especially when describing the various exhibitions Jim Key headlined, and does a reasonably good job of footnoting her various claims about Jim's mental prowess, though occasionally the reader wonders how, exactly, she decoded the horse's thought process. Her writing style is also somewhat tepid, but still, there is no doubt that Jim Key was an exceptional horse in an exceptional era guided by an exceptional man. Thanks to Rivas, Seabiscuit must now share a posthumous marquee along with Beautiful Jim Key. --Kim Hughes

About the Author:

Mim Eichler Rivas is the author of the acclaimed Beautiful Jim Key, as well as the coauthor of more than eighteen books, including The Pursuit of Happyness and Finding Fish with Antwone Fisher.

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