February 28, 2005 12:00 PM

By Mim Eichler Rivas


If Beautiful Jim Key were alive today, he’d have a movie deal. Living at the turn of the 20th century, Beautiful Jim Key wasn’t a person but rather a horse that, by using its teeth to pull out objects from racks, could seemingly add, subtract, spell and sort mail. As the horse’s fame grew (it starred at the 1904 World’s Fair), detractors cried hoax but eventually admitted they couldn’t discover any trickery.

Showing affection for her protagonists, Rivas brings to life a lost slice of Americana. She tells the story of a horse and his African-American owner, Dr. William Key, who was born a slave but became a self-taught veterinarian. After making his horse a cultural phenomenon, Dr. Key paved the way for the animal-rights movement.

Rivas’s exhaustively researched book is derivative of Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit, echoing its themes of human salvation through a tender relationship with an animal. Non-animal lovers may think the author got caught up in too much minutiae, but those who have a fascination for horses will gladly pony up.

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